by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by neomeruru
“I want everyone to understand before we start that this is a friendly conversation,” said Clint, settling a yellow legal pad on his lap and pulling a pen from his shirt pocket. “Not an investigation, not an inquest, and definitely not on the record. Just a chance to get some things straight before any real shit-fan connection. We good with that?”
“Of course.” Dom nodded and folded his hands on his desk, just as he would any other day. “Mr. Rey?”
Eliot pushed his glasses up his nose and raised his chin just enough that Dom could see most of his face now; he hadn’t met Dom’s eyes this whole time, not even when they’d shook hands at the door and Dom had informed Clint that, yes, they were acquainted. “Friday, I found evidence that four young men in my sixth period English class had plagiarized a major paper. I gave the relevant information to Principal Harris, who supported my decision to give them failing grades on the assignment, which would have kept three of them from passing the class for the semester. Saturday evening, Cale Pitts — one of the young men — came to my home, requesting that I reconsider; I told him I’d speak with on school property, on school time. Monday, yesterday, I was called into her office before first bell and informed that I was being suspended pending an investigation. And now I’m here.”
Dom nodded as he listened, not even bothering to feign surprise; of course he’d heard by now, everyone had heard by now, he’d even heard yesterday and had spent much of the previous evening alone in his home, swinging his cordless phone between his thumb and index finger, never quite able to dial the number and make the call. No one expected this meeting to be some shocking disclosure of previously unknown material. A city of a quarter million people, and gossip still spread through the school district administration like it was a one-stoplight town. “How long was Cale was at your house?”
Eliot hesitated, and Clint put his hand on Eliot’s shoulder. “Go on and say. Dom’s not here to take sides.”
“I’m not,” Dom confirmed, and it was true. In the five years he’d been investigating allegations of professional misconduct in the district, he’d learned only that pre-judging a case meant often as not that he’d be wrong when the dust finally settled.
With another nudge of his glasses up his nose, Eliot nodded. “No more than a minute or two. He left angrily, but he left.”
“And you heard nothing from him or any of them until Monday morning?”
“I heard nothing from anyone. I had no idea there was a problem until I was being removed from my teaching duties.”
“Are you aware of the substance of their allegations against you?”
“And you deny them.”
“Categorically.” Eliot raked his fingers back through his thick brown hair, pushing away from his face the few strands that had fallen loose of his ponytail. “I have never — would never — wouldn’t even think of–”
“Hey, now, it’s okay.” Clint squeezed Eliot’s shoulder, and when Eliot turned to look at him, Clint gave his best attorney smile. “We’re all friends here. Nobody in this room’s accusing you of anything, isn’t that right, Dom?”
Dom nodded. “That’s right.”
“So,” said Clint, turning to Dom while keeping his hand on Eliot’s shoulder, textbook I’m on your side body language, “I thought it’d be best to come down here as soon as possible to–” A sharp, annoying electronic jingle pierced the air, and Clint sighed, going for the beeper clipped to his belt. “It’s my assistant, gentlemen, I’ve got to take this, begging your pardon.” He stood from his chair and slipped out the door to Dom’s office, no doubt to sweet-talk the pretty secretary outside for her phone.
In the silence that followed, Dom sank back into his chair and took a deep breath, and Eliot finally brought his gaze up to meet Dom’s; dark circles under Eliot’s haunted eyes told of how little he’d probably slept the night before, and Dom would’ve been lying if he’d claimed to have gotten much more rest himself. “So, uh,” Eliot said in his soft voice, offering up a weak smile, “rain check on tonight?”
“Yeah … yeah.” Dom tried to return the smile, but the corners of his mouth felt leaden. “This weekend, though, maybe?”
“Maybe,” Eliot echoed. He folded his hands in his lap and bent his head forward, staring at them, looking timid and ashamed and not at all like the bright, vivacious creative writing teacher Dom had met the previous month at a fundraising event for Baker Middle School’s fine arts programs. But five years was a long time on a job like this, and in his tenure he’d seen more than a few acquaintances in the same chair that Eliot now occupied, and more than a few of those had deserved every inch of being there. Most of the time, the accusations involved he-said-she-said dynamics between rarely consenting adults — administrators and teachers, school board and staff, parents and faculty — but when a kid was involved, everything changed. When four kids were involved, it was all that times a thousand.
Sitting in his downtown office that April afternoon, Dom knew only one thing for certain: guilty or innocent, Eliot Rey could kiss his career as a high school teacher good-bye.
He spent the rest of the day making phone calls, most of which went straight to voicemail, and stopped by the supermarket on the way home to get a box of red beans and rice for one instead of enchilada fixings for two. His default use for insomnia was cleaning time, so the kitchen that greeted him when he stepped in through the back door was spotless and empty except for Carmen. “How was your day?” he asked, setting bags down on the counter.
Carmen hopped up on the counter, and he scritched the white spot under her chin. “Did you do anything of value?” She purred and rubbed her cheek against the paper grocery bag, and he sighed. “Of course you didn’t. Good girl.”
The water on the stove was just to boiling when his phone rang, and he winced when he saw the assistant superintendent’s name on the caller ID. “Have you looked in his employee file?” She was talking even before he’d acknowledged answering. “Did you see the papers from his former school? We gave him the benefit of the doubt here, and that’s got us in a world of trouble.”
“Hello, Martha.” Dom tucked the receiver at an awkward angle between his chin and shoulder, then used both his free hands to rummage through the fridge for a leftover chicken breast he swore he’d tucked away in there just the other day. “It’s a bit late–”
“I just found out. I had no idea.” He could imagine her putting one red-manicured hand to her breast in a true southern gothic show of dismay.
“Martha, I’m at home right now.” Meat found, he tore open the top of the box of rice mix and dumped it into the bubbling water, smiling as the spices hit his nostrils, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten anything since morning. “Everything’s back at the office. If you’ve got something you want me to see, why don’t you send it over there and I’ll have my eyes on it first thing tomorrow?”
“The school has a copy; you need to stop by and get it there.” Her voice was sharp on the word copy, and he could only imagine under whose watchful eyes the original documents now lived.
“I’ll do that. Martha, I’ve got to go, something is boiling over,” he lied, and after he received a resigned parting mumble from her, he hung up the phone. She was a nice enough woman, well-meaning and concerned, and no doubt she was already being hounded by parents and attorneys alike while trying to keep this all under wraps as long as possible — but good heavens, could she be a trial to deal with. He sliced the cooked breast and tossed it in a pan to warm, took the rice off the burner when it was ready, and declared the whole mess dinner. He even tossed Carmen a scrap of meat, which she carried in her jaws as she followed him past the kitchen table and into the den. As long as he was careful not to spill, he figured he had no one to impress.
He ate as he watched the news and some sitcom with a plot he couldn’t follow. Twice he shooed Carmen away from his half-finished meal before he got up to put the leftovers back in the fridge; he could take it for lunch tomorrow. Everything was easier when he focused on the practical.
He hadn’t realized how quiet the house had become until the phone started ringing. The number was unfamiliar but the area code was local, which made him figure someone in the media, and if that was the case, it was someone who needed to be chewed out for calling him after hours and sent away without comment. “Domingo Abarca,” he answered, curt and professional.
There was a little laugh from the other end, and the voice that spoke was a gentle mixture of New Jersey and Puerto Rico that Dom had come to know well over the past two weeks: “Hi. Just me.”
“Hi, Just Me,” said Dom with a smile, and just like that, he could almost forget the last twenty-four hours had ever happened. He melted down into his couch and shut his eyes. “Where are you?”
“Pay phone outside a bar by my apartment. I’m a real shady character tonight.” Eliot laughed, though Dom could hear the weariness seep through. “Clint said something about how lawyers might want to see my phone records, so….”
“Oh, I get it. Very sneaky.” Carmen pushed her head under Dom’s hand, so he picked her up and slung her around his shoulders like an airplane pillow, a position which she inexplicably enjoyed. “Carmen says hi.”
“Tell her I was looking forward to seeing her tonight.”
“She says she misses you.” Dom held the bottom end of the receiver toward his cat for a moment, just to see if she’d meow, but she did nothing of the sort.
Eliot laughed again. “She misses having four petting hands available to choose from instead of two. I doubt she’s picky.” He’d only met her once before, when he’d come to pick up Dom for their third date, the first where they hadn’t both converged independently on a pre-arranged location; Dom’s house had been on Eliot’s way to the restaurant, and he’d been nearly out the door when he’d remembered that not feeding Carmen usually meant returning home to disaster, so Eliot had seen cat and entryway alike while he waited. The fourth date, by mutual unspoken agreement, was the milestone where one of them cooked for the other, thereby allowing both of them to spend more than five minutes together in a non-public location. It was supposed to have been that night.
Dom took a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry about–”
“No. Don’t be sorry. No worries.” Eliot cleared his throat, and Dom wondered if he could squeeze those words like a sponge, how much alcohol would drip out. “You’re just doing your job. Like me.”
“I can still be sorry.” Dom scritched Carmen under her chin until she started to purr. “I was….” He took a short, steadying breath. “I was really hoping you could come over tonight.”
“Me too,” said Eliot, the regret and longing audible in his voice. They’d brushed the backs of one another’s knuckles across restaurant tables when they’d felt sure no one was looking, and they’d managed a single brief on-the-lips kiss across the front seat of Eliot’s car, bold and beneath the streetlight in front of Dom’s driveway, before Dom had beaten a hasty retreat to his front door lest any prying eyes from nearby houses catch them; that, however, had been the extent of their public displays of affection, and even that had been more daring than Dom was sure either of them had been comfortable with. Tonight was supposed to have been their first opportunity to touch. And then this.
“Saturday night. I’ll go all out; I’ll make tamales.” Dom forced a smile, hoping it could be heard through the connection. “Give you something worth the wait.”
He hadn’t realized the less wholesome implications of his offer until Eliot gave a breathy laugh, and Dom blushed a little despite himself. “Unless, of course, somebody decides I was actually fucking students, in which case you’ll just have to send me a care package at the county jail.”
“That’s–” Dom sputtered, but Eliot cut him off.
“Sorry. Poor taste.” Eliot took a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips. “Thank you, by the way. For not asking me if I did it or not.”
What Dom wanted most in the world right then was to be able to say of course you didn’t, to promise I believe you, to swear that he’d exonerate his maybe-could-be-someday boyfriend; what he hated most was that he couldn’t. “My job’s just to make sure the district’s covered its ass. Proving guilt and innocence is way above my pay grade.”
Eliot gave a half-chuckle at the quip, which Dom supposed was more than it deserved. “Hey, I should go, my quarter’s probably almost up … but if you’re serious about Saturday…?”
“Hey, I’m always serious about tamales.”
“Then it’s a date,” said Eliot. “Assuming, of course, I survive the week.”
Walking into King High School was a quick study in extremes, foremost in temperature: the mid-April heat outside did battle with the artificial winter inside, and as soon as the front doors shut behind Dom, the air conditioning declared victory. The first bell wasn’t set to ring for another thirty minutes, but students were already milling about, a few of them wearing neon green shirts that proclaimed they were FEELIN’ GREAT IN ’98, which he supposed must have been that year’s senior slogan. He straightened his tie and tugged his sleeves down toward his wrists, then turned to the first door to his right, the one marked FRONT OFFICE.
A ponytailed student assistant looked up at him from behind the counter, saying nothing as she eyed him expectantly. “Good morning, I’m Mr. Abarca, I work at the district offices downtown, and I was told I could see Principal Harris?”
“Dom!” called a voice from the other side of the office, and he turned to see a tiny, steel-haired woman who could have been the twin of the maternal grandmother who’d raised him after his mother had passed away. “Come on back here, Martha said you’d be dropping by.”
“Luna, how are you?” He shook her hand in greeting as they met, nearly engulfing her fragile, bony digits in his own.
She gave him a look that said don’t ask. “I’ve had better years. Come on back, I’ve got the file. Martha Jones called me last night–”
“Probably right after she hung up from bothering me during dinner.”
Luna smiled, but it didn’t take any of the exhaustion from her eyes. “She told me to have this ready for you.” She led him into her office, which was a cramped, windowless thing; the high school had been built thirty years previous, the first one in the city to have central air conditioning, and the designers hadn’t wanted to give any of that precious, pricey coolness a single extra hole for escape. On her desk sat a thin red file folder with Eliot’s name on the tab. “You can’t take it out of the building, but you can look at it here as long as you want.”
“Before you go,” he said, picking up the file, and as she paused by the doorway, he continued, “what’s your bead on the situation?”
For a moment, she wouldn’t meet his eyes. “My take?” She sighed and shut the door to the office, sheltering them both inside. “My take is that I’ve got a nightmare he-said-they-said situation here, and the tie goes to the kids. I have to side with them. It makes me sick that it might be wrong, but I can’t take the chance the other direction. You tell me which would be worse: suspending a teacher pending an inquiry into false allegations, or keeping a child molester in the classroom?”
Dom held up his free hand, defenseless. “No one’s saying that’s the wrong choice….”
Luna pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head, then placed a hand on Dom’s arm. “I know, I’m sorry, it’s just that….” Her entire posture bled exhaustion, making Dom wonder if any of them had slept the past few nights through. “Eliot’s a good man, and more than that, he’s a good teacher. I’m facing budget cuts and now the state wants to make passing the TAAS test a requirement for graduation, so I’ve got to take more time away from the non-core curriculum for test prep, and every time I come to him with something else impossible, he just smiles and tells me that we’ll make it work. And then he makes it work.”
Naturally, he and Eliot had spent most of their initial dates talking about education, since it was the most obvious intersection of their interests, and Dom had come away with the clear picture of Eliot as dedicated, enthused about his work, and cheerfully indefatigable. It should have made him happy to have this impression confirmed by others, to hear more good things said about the man he already thought good things about; instead, he felt sick to his stomach having to hear them like this. “You’re doing the best you can,” he reassured her, for what it was worth.
“You’re sweet to say so,” Luna smiled, and she left with a promise to bring him back coffee in a few minutes. Alone in the office, Dom pulled up a chair, spread open the file on his crossed knees, and picked up the first page.
His first instinct was to put it back down, to put it all down and walk away, to beg someone, anyone else to do this, to excuse himself for personal reasons he couldn’t explain. Instead he took a deep breath and let his eyes linger on the top typewritten sheet, the standard district printout containing a short history and contact information of one Rey, Eliot Cedeño, b. November 18, 1970 in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico; B.A. and M.A. in education from NYU, 1992 and 1995; employed by the district since September 1997, and before that by the Kaffee School, Denville, New Jersey, 1995-1996–
That was new; Eliot hadn’t said anything about New Jersey in his employment history. Of course, Dom thought, there was no reason he should have, as he couldn’t think of a time it had come up, nor of a time it might have come up but Eliot had avoided the subject. He’d gone through dozens of files like this before, looking for one piece or another of relevant information, but this time felt awful, like some horrible combination of cheating and spying. He hadn’t done much dating in his lifetime, but was fairly certain from all the times he’d seen it done on television and in the movies that it was supposed to be a slow-growth process, and that rushing things by mining for information prematurely and behind the other person’s back only led to miscommunication and mishaps, some less comic than others.
Before he could talk himself out of it, he peeled back the first page and saw a sheet of photocopied letterhead that bore the emblem and the address of the Kaffee School, which must have been some northern prep school Dom had never heard of before. To whom it may concern, it began, but what followed could only be considered a letter of recommendation by the most generous sense of the phrase.
The author of the letter, identified in the first sentence and beneath his signature as the headmaster, had some nice enough things to say — the words compassionate, singular, and hardworking featured prominently — but that was the first paragraph, which was over with soon enough. The second, longer block of text featured more descriptive phrases, such as allegations of impropriety and sexual misconduct. Dwarfed by those, the third paragraph’s could find no evidence and charges dismissed seemed microscopic and insignificant, shutting the barn door long past the horse’s escape, and the closing regret that Mr. Rey’s time as part of our faculty was so short was just salt in a wound.
Here it was, in black and white: this had happened before. Small wonder Luna had reacted so strongly, if she’d seen this already, and he likewise wasn’t surprised finding this out had prompted Martha to call him at home. This piece of information landed the whole case squarely in his court; this was the sort of thing districts got sued blind over.
He returned to charges dismissed, but it was the legal too-little-too-late. As any politician would swear, scandalous charges had a way of sticking in the minds of people in general, and parents in particular. There was a huge gap between being cleared in the legal sense and being forgiven by a public that seemed never to hear the whole story. Of course Luna had suspended Eliot, and if Dom had been in her position, he would’ve done the same thing, and he didn’t fell good about that at all.
No, he realized, on reflection he felt just fine about his theoretical allegiance to due diligence; what was starting to make him sick now was wondering if she’d been right. The idea that the same teacher would twice, in a two-year span, face allegations of sexual misconduct? When most teachers with their entire careers without a single incident? Odds were strong against that kind of coincidence. And as long as two weeks seemed, in the grand scheme of getting to know someone, it wasn’t long enough to prove or disprove first impressions about what exactly a man was or was not capable of doing.
He closed the file and put it back on Luna’s desk, but he couldn’t put back inside the cold doubt that had taken up residence in his brain, gnawing with sharp teeth that made him hate himself.
Cale Pitts was tall and skinny, and he’d no doubt be an attractive young man once he got over both his adolescent acne and the patchwork blonde-white facial hair that sprouted in around it. Everyone else looked at the attorney when he spoke, but Cale kept his chin tipped toward the floor in an uncanny impression of Eliot’s earlier pose. The tape had the cheap grain of having been recorded over time and again, but the discomfort in the room made it through loud and clear as Dom watched, headphones on, tapping the end of his pen against a yellow legal pad.
By the time the tape ran to static forty-five minutes later, however, he hadn’t written more than five words, because he hadn’t learned anything new. The boys’ stories remained consistent — too consistent, Dom thought, before he wondered how much his own bias wanted to hear their accusations as lies — and despite his reluctant pose, Cale was clearly the lead wolf in that pack. As the taped deposition ran, the other three never said anything without glancing to Cale first, as though looking for his approval, and when they did speak, it was to tell their variations on Cale’s theme: solicitation, refusal, and then shock and horror at being accused of cheating.
The one facet Cale had to his story that the others lacked was that Saturday evening visit. “What happened then?” asked the attorney.
“I went to his apartment,” Cale said, his deep incongruous from his youthful face. He kept his eyes downcast, an expression that could have been equally a liar’s dodge or a molestation victim’s shame.
“Why did you decide to do that?”
Cale shrugged. “I just needed to talk to him. I was panicking.”
“And what happened when you got there?”
There was a pause as Cale took an audible breath, and then he looked up, his expression solid; his hands were nearly obscured by the line of the heavy oak table, but Dom could see his hands curl into fists. “He said he’d stop lying about the tests if I’d….” He pressed his lips together tight, and before the attorney could ask for clarification, he continued, “If I’d have sex with him.”
Dom took a long swallow from his can of Dr Pepper and reflected on how much he hated this shit. He wasn’t a polygraph; if he’d been blessed with the gift of being a human lie detector, he would’ve found a career in law enforcement, not in giving legal advice to a school district. The few previous times he’d had to advise the district on student-teacher relationships had been cases where the encounters had been consensual and there’d been little dispute about what precisely had taken place, and thus most of what had been left was sussing out how much consent the younger (and always opposite-sex) partner had given, or been able to give. This he-said-they-said quagmire was giving him a headache.
He was contemplating a beverage stronger than just a coke when Clint called. “Got some good news,” he said. “Well, good for Eliot. Three of the boys recanted.”
Dom sat upright so fast that he nearly pitched himself out of his ancient desk chair. “Which three?” he asked, even though he knew the answer already.
“Brent Davis, Rudy Longoria, Matt Vargas.”
“But not Cale Pitts.”
“Not Cale. In fact, the reason they recanted is because Cale told them to. He said that he’d only asked them to claim they’d been involved so he didn’t have to say it alone.” A note of triumph rang clear from Clint’s voice. “That casts a lot of doubt on all the right things.”
Dom spun the remote in his fingers. “Clint, what do you know about the Kaffee School?”
An audible chill frosted through the connection. “I know the school’s inquiry found nothing to–”
“Nothing to what?”
Clint sighed, and Dom heard him swallow and wondered what he was drinking, if despite the early afternoon hour it might be any stronger than his own chosen libation. “Kids saw him out with his then-lover,” Clint said, his voice neutral in that tone Dom knew from hearing liberal-minded people talk about concepts they knew it was gauche to let disgust them as much as they did. “Told their parents, parents raised a fuss, raised fuss led to both parties’ deciding it’d be better if he moved on. Not a single hand laid or accused of being laid on a single kid, and also not even relevant to what’s going on it.”
Dom raised an eyebrow. “You don’t think it’s relevant that Martha knows?”
“Shit,” Clint swore, dragging the word out to three full syllables. “Not the same thing, though. You get that, right?”
“I get it,” Dom nodded, though he didn’t have high hopes that anyone else in the school district would be so similarly understanding.
A few more plans and pleasantries exchanged, and Clint excused himself, saying that he had another call waiting for him to take, which Dom didn’t doubt a bit; Clint wasn’t a classy attorney by any stretch of the imagination, more the kind that got himself known through low-budget TV ads with the phone number superimposed in yellow across the bottom third of the screen, but he was relatively cheap and relatively effective, and that kept him busy enough. He obviously seemed to care about Eliot as more than just a case to win, but Eliot also wasn’t his only client, and a loss there for Clint would sting but not cripple. Still, Dom figured, at least one of them should be able to maintain some objectivity here, and he certainly wasn’t going to be it.
That settled, he made the walk he’d been dreading since the night before: out his door, down the steps to the lobby, around the corner, and into the office of former middle school history teacher and current Assistant Superintendent Martha Jones.
“Well?” she asked, after she’d offered him coffee (no, thank you) and a Danish butter cookie from a blue tin (also no, thank you), then taken one of each herself and resettled behind her heavy oak desk. “What’s your legal opinion?”
Dom suspected she might have been pretty once, when she was younger, before she’d hit that age that seemed to make some women go crazy and paint, tint, and/or dye every exposed inch of their bodies. Now, though, she mostly looked like a living vindication of his grandmother’s warnings about ‘if you make that face too long you’ll freeze that way’, provided the face in question had been made by sucking lemons; at forty-five, she looked more like a sixty-year-old woman trying to look twenty. The hutch that arched over her computer behind her was decorated with photographs of her four children and her husband, and from where Dom sat it looked like they surrounded her, a protective swarm of smiling faces and exposed teeth.
“It’s tough to say,” said Dom, though he could see from the line between her painted-on eyebrows it wasn’t the answer she’d wanted to hear. “It is. It’s a teacher’s word against a student’s, and that student’s word is questionable now that the three others backing up his story have recanted.”
“But he told them too.” Martha nipped at the edge of a cookie, and tiny crumbs snowed down on the desk. “He told them to say it with him so he wasn’t the only one, and then he realized that he’d made a mistake by dragging them into it. Typical adolescent boy solidarity, especially when bringing an accusation like this against an authority figure.” With a flick of her hand, the desk was clean again.
Dom shrugged. “You asked for my legal opinion, so there it is.” Martha quirked her painted lips to one side, and Dom sighed. “Look, what do you want me to say? Do you just want me to find legal grounds for firing him regardless?”
Martha’s expression read a clear yes, but she was far too politic ever to say so. “I want you to make sure that the district itself is not liable. If Mr. Rey is found guilty, reasons for termination will become self-evident.”
That, Dom figured, was putting it mildly. “You’re concerned that the district knew he was gay when he was hired.”
In a way, it was refreshing to work with people who wore their bigotry on their faces: at least you always knew where you stood. The mention of the word ‘gay’ made Martha’s taut mouth pull even tauter, and her sharp, painted thumbnail worked a wound into her cookie. “It was made explicitly clear to Mr. Rey that neither his personal life nor … lifestyle had any place in the classroom,” she snapped, and Dom was certain that if she’d been part of the hiring committee, that ‘explicitly’ wasn’t an exaggeration.
“That,” Dom took a small pleasure in pointing out, “might be interpreted as its own kind of discrimination–”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You know that’s district policy.” Martha shook her head. “Teachers’ personal lives are to remain personal. We expect that of all our employees. Our focus here is education, not socializing with children and adolescents. We simply made certain Mr. Rey understood that he was to be held to the same standards as all other faculty, staff, and administrators.”
She reached for her coffee cup, and Dom saw the glint from her left hand — a large diamond solitaire, flanked on either side by wedding and anniversary bands of gold and smaller stones. Behind her, the display of pictures continued to stare out cheerfully at him, some of which he knew predated her current administrative post. She’d had all four of her children while she’d still been employed as a classroom teacher, and said often (usually during discussions about maternity leave and how little of it lazy teachers should be granted) how she prided herself on having taught right on into her ninth month every time.
“The same,” Dom echoed. “Of course.”
The entire evening was given over to thoughtless tasks, most of which involved even more cleaning. Dom wasn’t a fastidious man by nature, but he was inclined to keep his house tidy and well-swept, on account of how if he didn’t, it’d all wind up smelling like cat. Now, however, he wanted something mindless enough that it wouldn’t exhaust him further after the day he’d had, but that he had to concentrate on just enough so as not to give his mind enough freedom to wander.
Changed from his work attire into a t-shirt and pair of sweatpants he wouldn’t mind getting grimy, Dom scoured the dining room and coffee tables, dusted all the bookshelves, mopped the floor, and scrubbed a stain out of the couch cushions, a flurry of activity that already had Carmen set on edge. When he went for the hall closet, though, she began to protest verbally, yowling a plaintive wail. “I’m sorry,” he told her, sliding back the slatted door. “There’s no other way.”
She paced a small circle before jumping up on top of a low shelf, perhaps in the vain hope that altitude would save her from the coming horror. As soon as Dom hauled out the ancient vacuum cleaner, though, she accepted the inevitable and tore off down the hallway toward his bedroom; he’d probably have to coax her out from under the bed later with an apology treat. Still, there were some things that couldn’t be avoided, no matter how much they made his cat hate him.
Dom was halfway through with the living room rug when he became aware of a knocking noise. Fearing something had gone wrong with the cleaner itself — it was old, after all, and he was a bit surprised every time he plugged it in and it didn’t burst into flames — he yanked the cord from the wall and let the motor growl to a halt. The knocking persisted, however, and he realized it was coming from his front door. Still half-lost in his housekeeping fog, he went to answer it.
He supposed, all things considered, he shouldn’t have been surprised to see Eliot on the other side, but the sight still took him a minute to reconcile, and so it was Eliot who got in the first word: “Hey,” he said, hands stuffed nervously into his pockets.
“Hey,” Dom answered, feeling a smile lift the sides of his mouth. “Hey, sorry, I’m … I was cleaning.”
Eliot matched Dom’s smile, though his was weighed down by an exhaustion even more profound than Dom’s. “I figured it was either that or you were running the world’s biggest blender.”
“For my famous garbage punch margaritas,” Dom quipped, and Eliot laughed in reply, the tense creases around his eyes softening into genuine laugh lines. “Well, I look terrible, but the house is clean, so if you want to come in….”
“I can’t stay long,” said Eliot, but when Dom stepped back from the door, Eliot stepped forward to fill his vacated spot on the other side of the frame. He looked around as Dom shut the door behind them, directing his gaze downward. “Where’s Carmen?”
Dom nodded in the direction of the bedroom before realizing Eliot might not have understood entirely what that gesture meant. “Probably under the bed. As far as she’s concerned, the only reason the giant roaring wind machine comes out is to torment her.”
Eliot laughed again, relaxing more with every exhalation. He was so handsome, with his freckled skin and light brown eyes, and Dom was so relieved to see him back nearly to his normal self again that he reached for Eliot and brushed his thumb across Eliot’s lightly stubbled cheek. Eliot turned into the touch, and Dom took the encouragement to lean forward and press their lips together.
It wasn’t a disaster-movie reunion, with desperate kisses and hands fisted in all available material; they didn’t move much closer than they’d been before, in fact, just leaned across the little gap between them until their mouths met. It was several seconds before they even moved past the dry press of skin to parted lips, tongues peeking out to dampen their key point of contact, taking tentative tastes. They hadn’t done much more than this that night they’d kissed good-bye in front of Dom’s house, and the lack of distance between the careful public gesture and the protected private one made a knot twist in Dom’s stomach; when he’d imagined this kiss before, their first behind closed doors, he’d always pictured its being a cause for smiles and happiness, leading into their second, and third, and more to follow. Reality, though, was always more fraught.
At last, Eliot wrapped his arms around Dom’s thick waist at the same time he broke from the kiss, turning it instead into a fierce hug that Dom was more than happy to answer. This was the most protective he’d been allowed to be in this entire mess and he didn’t want a moment of it to pass by. “I can’t stay long,” Eliot repeated in a sad whisper, the moment of his lips distinct through Dom’s thin, sweat-damped shirt.
“I know.” Dom nodded, rubbing his hand across Eliot’s back, tracing comforting circular paths with his palm. “I wish you could, but I know.” Eliot felt thin, but perhaps Eliot always felt thin and Dom had just never noticed because he’d never had the opportunity to hold him like this before.
“I wish I could too.” Eliot took a deep breath, and his narrow chest expanded to press against the tight circle of Dom’s embrace. “I just … wanted to see you without my chaperone.”
“Did you tell him about…?” Dom gave Eliot an awkward hug in a way he hoped conveyed the sentiment the two of us.
Eliot shook his head. “There’s nothing to tell. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself, to justify not doing what I know I should.” He took another deep breath, but accompanied this one by leaning back against the place where Dom’s arms met, and Dom relaxed his grip, allowing them both to see one another. “That’s part of why I stopped by, actually.”
Oh, that explained everything: the face-to-face meeting, the awkwardness, the way Eliot kept reiterating his need to leave. “Is this, um … a breakup visit?” Dom asked, steeling himself against the answer. Bad enough that it was probably going to be a yes; worse even if Eliot pointed out how they hadn’t actually been dating sufficiently by any reasonable standard to justify classifying calling it off as a proper ‘breakup’.
But Eliot shook his head and placed his palms flat against Dom’s chest with such conviction that Dom knew his fears were unfounded nearly before he’d finished feeling them. “No.” Eliot shook his head. “What it is, is me saying that I want to be with you. I think you’re amazing and funny and such a good person, and it feels so easy to talk with you, and I want to keep kissing you. But if you don’t want to after all this, I’d underst–”
“I do!” Dom said, a little more forcefully than he’d perhaps intended, but the smile that won him from Eliot was more than worth any discomfort. “I really do.”
“Then I really want you to be sure.” His palms felt warm, and Dom was certain that had they not been pressed so tightly together, Eliot would have been trembling. “I don’t want you to take my word on it. Investigate whatever you want, ask whatever you feel you need to, question everything — because I don’t want hanging over us any nagging doubts that I might be the kind of person that could do something like that.”
Hearing Eliot say this, Dom felt as though one great weight had been lifted from his chest and another set into its place. There were indeed things he hadn’t asked, theories he hadn’t let his mind entertain, and though he’d justified the omissions to himself at the time, the truth was that he had felt guilty, even if not in a fully conscious way, about letting himself consider the possibility that Eliot might actually have molested a student, blackmailed him into silence with his grades, and then lied about it all. After all, wasn’t that the standard Hollywood complaint of the falsely accused to their skeptical loved ones: How could you believe something like that about me?
But Eliot had a point: any possibility Dom couldn’t let himself consider, he couldn’t let himself dismiss. To understand what it would be for Eliot to be innocent, he had to imagine what it would take for Eliot to be guilty.
After a moment’s quiet consideration, Dom nodded, and Eliot let out a sigh of relief. “I don’t blame you,” he said, reaching up to touch Dom’s cheek with his warm, slender fingers. Dom felt self-conscious about how unshaven and gross he was, though that worry disappeared as Eliot didn’t even hesitate.
“Isn’t that supposed to be my line?” Dom turned to nuzzle Eliot’s fingers.
Eliot smirked. “Maybe.” He pushed himself up on his tiptoes, and then their mouths were together again, this time with no hesitation in the kiss. They were an awkward pair in so many respects, dissimilar in ways that barely began with Dom’s having six inches and sixty pounds on Eliot’s slight frame, but when they came together like this, Dom could feel Eliot fill all the places he hadn’t even known were empty. He’d resigned himself long ago to contentment in a solitary life, but not until Eliot’s presence had Dom realized the difference between alone and just plain lonely.
Even so, they weren’t out of any woods yet, and despite the rush his connection with Eliot made him feel, Dom couldn’t keep out thoughts of what would come once they were no longer locked safe inside his house. Poisoned by his own anxious pessimism, Dom stilled his mouth against Eliot’s, feeling a stab of guilt when Eliot fumbled on a confused moment longer before coming to rest himself. As though by mutual agreement, they parted and took up positions on either side of the narrow entryway, Dom with his back against the wall by a thick-framed mirror, Eliot with his arm leaning atop the planter wall where Dom kept his mail. It shouldn’t have been like this; they should have kept kissing and moved back to the bedroom, romantically ignoring Dom’s homemade dinner now cooling on the kitchen table, leaving a trail of discarded clothes down the hall, each giving into what he knew the other had also been thinking about for weeks now. They’d make love, and go eat whatever stone-cold leftovers Carmen hadn’t already helped herself to, and then make love again, and at last fall asleep in one another’s arms, looking forward to waking up that way the next morning. They’d be laughing and embracing the entire time, and everything Eliot said would be beautiful, and no point would he ever have had to speak the words Dom now heard coming from his mouth: “Anything else you want to ask without my attorney present?”
Dom took a deep breath and straightened his spine until he could feel his back and shoulders form a rigid T, just the shape for asking the hard questions; a good boyfriend would say no, but he had no illusions about how good he was or wasn’t anymore. “If I’d asked you a week ago to describe Cale Pitts, what would you have told me?”
“Kind,” was Eliot’s immediate answer. “Bright enough, but not inclined to do his work. Not terribly self-motivated. If I quizzed him on something we’d covered in class, he’d do well enough, but he never put in any outside effort, never turned in his homework, never did the reading. Solid C student, as far as my class was concerned.”
“Would you have said he seemed the kind to cheat?”
Eliot hesitated for a moment, then sighed and nodded. “If under the right pressure, yes. Not because of any malice or coherent protest, but just because … he didn’t care enough to do the work honestly.”
Dom folded his arms across his chest as he chewed over this information. “Would you have said he seemed the kind to lie about being a victim of abuse?”
“No.” Eliot shook his head, and the line of distress that had earlier furrowed the skin between his eyebrows returned. “He never mentioned–” But before the sentence had barely started, it was finished, amputated by the trap-jaw shut of Eliot’s lips.
“What?” Though he hadn’t spent time as a practicing trial attorney, Dom still could tell when a person was committing a sin of omission that obvious. “You can tell me.”
Eliot shook his head, drawing his arms across his chest until he mirrored Dom’s posture, except from him the gesture was less authoritative than protective and made him look even smaller. “I can’t. It’s not mine to tell.”
Of all the responses he’d expected from Eliot, that level of blatant stonewalling hadn’t been among them. Gears began to turn in Dom’s head, and he didn’t like the machine they called, lurching, to life. “…What happened when Cale came over to your house that night?” he asked, chasing a bitter idea.
The readied statue-steady expression on Eliot’s face told Dom that the question wasn’t entirely unexpected. “I let him in. I know,” he added, before Dom could even formulate a response, “but it was pouring. We talked inside. He only stayed for few minutes.”
“Why didn’t you–” Dom mentally sped over Cale’s deposition. “Why didn’t either of you mention that detail?”
It was a long beat before Eliot spoke again, and when he did, he didn’t lift his eyes quite high enough to meet Dom’s gaze. “Because it makes both of us look guilty.”
Both of you? Dom began to ask, but before he could give voice to his question about what the hell meeting with Eliot behind (even briefly) closed doors might have to do with Cale’s having cheated on his paper, the answer came to him: there were more things here to feel guilty about here than just the obvious. “Was sex offered at that time?” As Eliot’s hands balled into fists so tight they trembled, Dom’s eyes widened. “By you?”
Sporting a face that would have made champion poker players jealous, Eliot didn’t shift his expression so much as a hair’s breadth. That second non-answer was answer enough itself, though, and Dom felt rising in the back of his throat an anger that he hadn’t let himself feel before now. As his first instinct had of course been to assume Eliot’s innocence, Dom had already well entertained the idea that Cale was lying; somehow, however, the extent of what a shitty thing that was to do to someone had held off hitting him until it became clear that if Cale was in fact fabricating the allegations, his credibility to the contrary was being preserved by Eliot’s silence. “You’re protecting him?” asked Dom. “Why?”
“Because it’s my fucking job,” spat Eliot, though no sooner had he said it than he steepled his fingers across his closed lips and took a deep breath. “Sorry, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to snap at you, I just…”
Whatever anger had been rising inside Dom collapsed like a burst balloon. “Shh, it’s okay.” Dom reached for Eliot’s shoulder and was gratified when Eliot let himself be pulled first out of his tight stance, then into Dom’s arms. “I’m sorry,” he said, stroking Eliot’s soft hair.
No sooner was he settled in Dom’s embrace again than he tried lamely to push away again, but Dom didn’t let go, and presently Eliot relaxed into the contact, resting his head on Dom’s shoulder. “He’s just a stupid kid,” Eliot sighed, sounding miserable. “He’s a stupid kid and I’m an adult who can take care of myself, and I’m not going to throw a stupid kid under the bus just to save my own skin. He plagiarized a paper, and I don’t feel bad about busting him for that. But I won’t punish him for what’s not his fault.”
Dom wanted to protest — you can at least trust me! — but knew better than that. For all the fire he felt between them, their relationship wasn’t a sure thing now, and Dom knew firsthand there was a difference between trusting your lover with your own secrets and trusting him with someone else’s. Eliot had no guarantee that Dom wouldn’t find himself in a position where he either wanted to or had to tell what he knew, and despite what Dom might be able to guess from Eliot’s words and silences, Dom knew nothing for certain. If it all went wrong, if everything went down in flames, Eliot could crash knowing he’d let nothing slip that could take anyone else down with him.
Instead, Dom pressed his lips against Eliot’s prematurely lined forehead. “You are a good man,” he said, shutting his eyes. “A damn good man.”
There was a hitching sound from Eliot’s chest, a sharp spasm that sounded like a sob, but when Dom looked down at Eliot’s face, he saw eyes that were tired but clear. “Just doing my job.”
The vacuum spent the night where he’d let it fall, to Carmen’s great distress, but after shutting the front door with Eliot on the other side, Dom felt barely enough energy left in him to keep himself upright, much less finish his cleaning job or return it to its proper place. Instead, he took the trip to his bedroom he’d imagined making with Eliot, only alone now, and when he undressed he did so with no particular haste, tossing everything into the laundry basket in the closet. No doubt emboldened by the silence, Carmen had found her way out from beneath whatever protective object she’d chosen and had instead decided that the only place in the world she wanted to be was Dom’s pillow. Normally Dom chased her away when he found her there, but tonight he knew she deserved some lenience by way of apology. Conceding her claim to territory, he pulled himself, naked to his undershorts, between the sheets on the other half of his bed and reached across her to grab the mystery novel on his bedside table. After reading the same page five times without absorbing it, he gave up and switched off the light.
In the dark, he allowed himself a moment of petty selfishness: damn it, it wasn’t fair. For the first time in his life, something had been going right for him, and now even before it had really started, through absolutely no fault of his own, it was going to hell. If he did let himself entertain the possibility of guilt, well, the one man he’d managed to date since college was a man who molested students and used their grades to bully them into silence, and that didn’t say much about his taste in men at all.
Even the best-case, fully acquitted scenario wasn’t much better: what masochist would stay in a place that had thought so ill of him? So the best outcome he could hope for was that his maybe-would-have-been-someday-boyfriend would avoid criminal charges and get the hell out of Dodge. In light of that, he wondered how or even if they could last after this, the two of them, with so little to start with and so much in the way, even though he knew the answer already: they couldn’t.
“You were here yesterday.” She looked from him to the crowded hallway, her eyes lilac and artificial in the way of coloured contacts meant to go over dark irises, half-hidden by sleepy lids lined with heavy kohl. “Asking about Mr. Rey.”
Dom frowned for a moment before recognition filtered up through his not-enough-coffee-yet brain. “From the front office, right?” He’d stopped by King that morning to speak to Luna again and to pick up copies of the allegedly plagiarized test papers; he hadn’t expected to be addressed by anyone under thirty.
She nodded, shoving her hands as deep as they’d go into the kangaroo pocket of her blue-and-grey baja hoodie, standing in place while the rest of her classmates pushed on by. “He’s not coming back, is he?”
All his professional instincts told him he shouldn’t discuss the case with anyone without a vested interest and therefore a legal right to know, but there was something about her — something fragile and nervous beneath her defiant stance, watching the crowd with a bitter little paranoia — that was so familiar to him, he couldn’t bring himself to lie to her, not even by omission. “Probably not.” He shook his head.
“He didn’t do it. They’re lying.” She shrugged her backpack tighter up on her shoulder, dropping her voice as a particularly boisterous group of girls in matching Spirit Day shirts passed by; if they noticed her, they gave no indication, but she nevertheless waited until they’d all gone far beyond earshot before speaking again. “Everybody here knows they’re lying. He wouldn’t do that shit.”
Most young people he’d met on the job kept their tongue around adults unless they were furious for some reason; her casual profanity at once startled him and made him like her even more. “Well, miss–”
“All right, Magali, I’m Mr. Abarca.” He thought about offering her a handshake, but the way she clung to the strap of her backpack until her knuckles grew ashen made her look so wary of physical contact that he didn’t want to put her on the spot. “Is there anything else you can tell me about it?”
At that moment, the bell rang — though ‘bell’ was a generous word for the bone-shaking buzz that came across the PA system — and the last few stragglers in the hallways filtered into classroom doors that shut quickly after, leaving the two of them alone by the banks of green-painted lockers. Magali sighed. “Walk me to History so I don’t get a tardy.”
“Done.” Dom nodded. “You’re in one of Mr. Rey’s classes, then?”
“Two. English and Creative Writing.” She set off in the direction of her class, keeping a pace of no particular hurry, and Dom didn’t rush her. “He’s a really hard teacher, but he’s good. And he keeps his classroom open during lunch so you can go eat in there if you don’t want to go to the cafeteria. Sometimes he even plays some old music, like the Beatles. We kind of give him a hard time about it, but it’s pretty cool.”
Dom couldn’t help smiling at her sense of musical history. “Who’s ‘we’?”
She shrugged, but her expression grew even more guarded. “Me and some other kids, mostly from Creative Writing. Those guys are from English, though — the ones saying shit.”
“Have they been,” he searched for a diplomatic word, “unhappy this year?”
Magali snorted a derisive laugh. “They bitch all the time. Like they shouldn’t got to do all the work we do, like doing all the research. And it’s hard, but, you know, you do it, and then you get to college and you know what to do already. It’s what Mr. Rey says, anyway.”
They stopped in front of a door decorated with a few yellowed newspaper clippings about once-current events and a more recent picture of President Clinton: yet another teacher’s attempt to carve out a little personal space in the often-inhospitable environment of the institution. “So, what happened?” Dom asked.
“They got those papers from somewhere else.” Magali looked at her feet. “And they lied about him when he caught them. And it’s not fair, since he’s been way nicer to them than they deserve. Especially Cale.”
“Is Cale usually hard to get along with?”
“No, I mean … ’cause he’s like Mr. Rey too.” She took a deep breath and looked around, her eyes still wide and hunted despite their being alone in the silent white corridor, and before Dom could ask, she clarified, “And you know, like me. And you.”
Dom felt his heart leap up and catch in his throat. She could have meant anything, she could have denied everything out of that conversation even if he’d quoted it all back to her verbatim; but she hadn’t meant just anything, she’d meant she’d had his number from the start. It made him feel horror-struck and exposed, like he’d found himself in the middle of a nightmare about coming to school without any clothes on, only to pinch himself and realize he wasn’t dreaming at all. He always thought of his own sexuality as being perfectly invisible, and though at times it was more of a prayer that it might be true than something he actually thought was the case, it had been the lifelong comfortable fiction that let him believe he might pass through the world unnoticed. But if she could see through him, then who else wasn’t he fooling?
And then her hand was on the doorknob before Dom could open his mouth again, and she was stepping inside the classroom, and his chance was gone. The teacher, a matronly woman Dom was certain he’d met before at some gathering or another, paused mid-sentence and frowned, and Magali pointed over her shoulder. “I was with Mr. Abarca from downtown,” she explained, putting her things down by the only empty desk on the second row.
Dom waved, verifying her story. “Just … bringing her over. Sorry for the interruption.” Before he could make any more of a spectacle of himself, he beat a hasty retreat, not just out of the room but down the hall and out into the concourse before he stopped, out of air because he’d forgotten to breathe — not even just to breathe, but how to breathe; his lungs had seized up, turned to stone by her paralytic observations. He told himself in no uncertain terms that this was not the time to think about this, that there were concerns more pressing and potentially criminal than his discomfort. He told himself several times, in fact, but not once did it work.
His solitary, celibate life had meant it had never been an issue, because he had never made it an issue. He could let his friends and family — the few he had and the few he kept in touch with, respectively — think anything about him, because it didn’t matter because he never gave them anything by which they could confirm or deny their suspicions. Despite their assumptions, he knew the truth about himself, and though he didn’t necessarily like it, he’d come to terms with what it meant. Having someone else see, though, birthed a paranoia all its own. Of course, he wasn’t afraid she might turn him in; Magali had outed herself in the course of the conversation, after all, and he hated that he’d been so caught up in his own self-preserving fear that he hadn’t appreciated the trust she’d placed in him. But to have a complete stranger make the call mere minutes after meeting him was not unlike having pointed out that his trousers were unzipped and then wondering how long they’d been like that, how many people had seen and said nothing, and what they’d thought of him because of it — only he didn’t know of anyone who’d been harassed, fired, arrested, or beaten to death over a faulty zipper.
A hand settled on his shoulder, and he jumped nearly out of his skin, an overreaction made even more embarrassing by how its owner turned out to be no one more menacing than Luna, who looked baffled by the sharp reaction her touch had earned. “Didn’t mean to spook you….”
“No, no. It’s fine.” Dom took a deep breath and shook his head. “Lost in thought, sorry.”
She frowned at him with all the eagle-eyed concern of a woman who spent each day riding herd over nearly three thousand students and teachers. “You don’t look so good.”
Dom shook his head again, taking another deep breath as he did, getting himself together. “Just underslept. Do you have the test copies?”
“They’re on my desk,” she said, pointing across the concourse to the front offices. “I’ll get them to you after the meeting.”
Luna frowned. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”
It hadn’t been, of course, but there was no reason for Dom to try and talk his way out of a situation where he might learn something new. “Would it be all right if I sat in?” he bluffed, trying to pretend like he had even the least idea of what was going on.
“That’s why I came to find you,” Luna said with a smile, and where she led, he followed.
The whole office seemed balanced on eggshells from the moment they stepped through the door to the wing where the counselors’ desks were located, and all of them gave Dom wary stares as he passed, as though they were afraid not of but for him. An older woman behind the front desk spoke in hushed tones into a beige handset, tapping her nails against a list of names as she explained to yet another answering machine that ‘your child’ had been marked absent that day, while student assistant filed papers in teachers’ mailboxes and a hulking security guard surveyed the scene with crossed arms — all normal facets of operation, but done with such quiet tension, every ear strained to listen in for whatever gossip might filter out into the chilled air. Luna’s low heels clicked across the linoleum as she paced down the hall, past her office and the vice-principals’ offices beside it, to the newer carpeted conference room at the corridor’s end.
Clint was waiting at the door, and if he was glad to see Dom, he didn’t let it show. “Mr. Abarca,” he said, extending his hand in stoic greeting, and Dom shook it. “Then, Principal Harris, if we’re ready to begin….”
“I think we are,” Luna nodded, taking one of the two remaining seats and gesturing for Dom to sit in the other.
There were no introductions given or requested, Dom noticed, but there was really no need; the reputations of everyone at the table preceded their owners. He and Clint flanked Luna at one end of the table, the one closest to the door, and Dom wondered how deliberately she had chosen to place herself between the two broad, male attorneys. Their equal number sat down at the far end, cast in half-silhouette by some of the building’s few windows. Though Dom had never had chance to meet her in person, he recognized the sharp, keen face of Karyn Holmgreen from various television and newspaper pieces following her higher-profile trials and victim’s rights advocacy work. Beside her sat one of the vice-principals whose offices he’d passed on the way here, though she came to this particular table not as a school official, but as a mother: Alicia Pitts, who looked as tightly wound as Dom had ever seen her, gripping her coffee cup with hands that looked more like talons. And the third, in a button-down shirt that looked to have been applied to him by force and stringy yellow hair combed into his eyes … well, he needed the least introduction of all.
“Hello, Cale,” Dom said, folding his hands on the table in front of him. “Very pleased to meet you.”
The longer the meeting dragged on, the more Dom got the sense that the only person who wanted to be there even less than he did was Cale. While the others talked, running over familiar ground of accusations and plans of action, Cale sat still, his long arms and legs held tense as though they might be ready to snap in shut at the slightest provocation. He didn’t look angry or afraid or even ashamed, all reactions Dom associated with having to press charges on unwanted sexual advances; instead he looked more like he thought that if he tried hard enough, he might be able to disappear completely. He kept his mouth shut and his eyes fixed on his hands, nodding or shaking his head only when spoken to.
At last, Holmgreen turned to Cale to ask a question, some detail he’d already no doubt said for the record a dozen times — and stopped mid-sentence, frowning as she scrutinized his face. “Are you all right, Cale?” she asked, the concern in her voice overwrought but sincere.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Cale muttered, though he made no move toward his stated goal.
It was an opportunity for escape Dom wasn’t going to let pass him by. “So do I,” he said, framing his words with an apologetic smile. “Too much coffee. Cale, do you want to show me where it is?”
Of course Dom was familiar with the high school’s layout, something Luna knew and Clint might have suspected, but the other three didn’t know that. “Are you okay to go, sweetie?” asked Alicia. Dom was momentarily taken aback by her asking her seventeen-year-old son the same question she might have when he was seven, but he supposed he couldn’t hold her overprotectiveness against her; after all, though obviously concerned, she’d managed to avoid out-and-out hysteria, which Dom wasn’t sure he’d have been able to bypass, had their situations been reversed.
“Be fine, Mom,” Cale said without looking at her. He rose and started for the door, staring at his feet the whole way, and didn’t even acknowledge Dom’s presence, much less thank him for opening the door.
Dom didn’t say anything as they passed the first bathroom, an unmarked single-person stall beside the PA room that he didn’t expect Cale would necessarily know about. When they walked by a clearly marked BOYS sign, however, Dom frowned. “Where are we going?”
“Ones by the gym.” Cale turned the corner down a hall that smelled of sweat and floor wax. “Nobody uses those.”
Bowing to Cale’s superior knowledge of the terrain, Dom shut his mouth and let himself be led. He thought of high school athletics areas as bustling hives of activity, but at that early hour that section of the school was silent. As they walked, he watched Cale, as though there might be some clue hidden in the young man’s lanky steps and slight hunch. “Do you play a sport?” he asked, knowing full well Cale didn’t.
Cale shook his head. “No,” he said without turning around, and just when Dom thought his feigned-ignorance attempt at conversation had failed him, Cale added, “but I used to. JV basketball, freshman and sophomore years.”
“Never my game. Wasn’t tall enough. I was a middle linebacker.” Dom chuckled a little as they passed several long hand-painted spirit banners. “Played for Miller, though.”
Though school pride was never a guaranteed quantity, most students could get behind school rivalries, and Cale quietly booed the other high school’s name before letting his mouth rise in a sheepish smile. “Sorry.”
“Nah, it’s all right. That was years ago. I work for all the schools now.” Dom smiled back and waved the air clear between them as Cale pushed back the door to the gym bathrooms.
Inside, Dom could see they were the kind outfitted for the fans who came to see the games: fitted with several stalls and a line of urinals, and sporting an island of sinks and soap dispensers in the middle. Against the wall by the door was a low green bench, and Cale sank down on it. “…I don’t really have to go,” he confessed, staring at his clasped hands again. “Just wanted to get out of there, you know?”
“Believe me, I’m grateful for the excuse to escape myself,” said Dom, who didn’t particularly have to go either. Still, the little coffee he’d had earlier had managed to make its way to his bladder, and he figured he might as well make the effort, mostly so as not to appear like some creep who liked to follow adolescent boys into bathrooms. Thinking of waterfalls and whitewater rapids and torrential downpours, he stood in front of the urinal and squeezed out a modest-yet-convincing stream. That concluded, he zipped up and set about washing his hands.
“So what do you do, anyway?” Cale put his heels on the bench, drawing his knees up to his chest.
“I’m an attorney.” Dom tossed his paper towel into the wastebasket, then hovered by the sinks, trying not to give Cale any extra encouragement to leave. “I advise the school district about legal matters.”
“So if, um,” Cale’s voice caught in his throat and he cleared it away, “so if Mr. Rey gets arrested, are you–?”
“No,” answered Dom a little too quickly, trying to chase from his head the image of Eliot’s being pushed past reporters and microphones into a courtroom. “I don’t put or defend people on trial. I just give advice.”
Cale nodded and rested his chin on his knees, and in that moment he looked far younger than seventeen, perhaps all the way back to the long-lost child his mother had addressed earlier. He has the look of a fisherman who’d cast for a trout and hooked a whale, unable now either to pull it in or to let it go. It was difficult to imagine that he might be lying, seeing him like that, but Dom had seen sweeter faces do sourer things. “Do you talk to him ever?”
“Sometimes,” said Dom, neglecting to elaborate.
With a frown, Cale shut his eyes. “So … is he okay?”
Hearing that question, Dom at last understood why ‘kind’ had been the first descriptor that had come to Eliot’s mind. Instead of answering directly, Dom took a moment to think better of what he was about to say — then opened his mouth and said it anyway: “I’m an attorney, but I’m not your attorney. You don’t have to listen to me. But I give advice, and I give good advice, and my advice to you right now is: tell the truth. Not just part of it, but the whole truth. Because things like this … they don’t just go away. We’ve kept it from the press so far, but if it goes on, there are trials and cameras and investigations, and whatever you didn’t want to come out will come out anyway.”
Looking at bit green around the gills, Cale stood, though from the way he wasn’t meeting Dom’s eyes, Dom knew he’d struck a nerve. “I am telling the truth,” he snapped, the angry defiance in his voice in sharp contrast to the guilty way he stood.
“If you are, you’re not telling all of it.” Dom dropped his voice and stepped toward Cale, and to his fair surprise Cale didn’t back away. “Whatever happened between you two Saturday night — I don’t know. Nobody knows. And nobody but the three of us knows that there even is anything to know. Whatever it is that you’re afraid of, he’s not telling.”
Cale’s blue eyes widened to near-perfect circles. “He’s … not?”
Standing there alone with the ostensible villain in the scenario, if Eliot’s word were indeed good, Dom found himself caught in the painful position of wanting to offer solidarity but being unable to do so. He wanted to say, it’s okay, you can trust me, I’m gay too, despite barely ever having even thought that word about himself, much less said it aloud; it wouldn’t make much of a difference, maybe, or maybe it would be the thing that finally got through to Cale, the knowledge that someone else out there understood. He wouldn’t even have to bring Eliot into it. Just a confession of a shared condition, a hand reached out to a boy whose entire body language said he thought he was the only one of his kind in the world. Dom could remember being that age, desperate to conceal everything about himself, paranoid that every gesture might give him away; meeting another gay man then, one that wasn’t the degenerate or predator he’d been warned about, might literally have changed his whole life.
But he couldn’t, and he knew he couldn’t. On the most basic level, he couldn’t admit to how it was that he knew, much less how Cale would respond to being called out on it. Worst of all, just because Cale could trust Dom didn’t mean the reverse was true, and what would happen if Cale took that information and used it as a bargaining chip or another piece of ammunition?
This, Dom realized, standing in the mostly empty men’s bathroom beside the gymnasium, must be what Eliot’s entire teaching life was like, not just at stray moments like these, but every minute he stood in front of that classroom: policing himself, testing every word before he said it to make sure it didn’t give anything away, having to keep what he was constantly in mind to make sure the students never found out, never letting an inch of himself slip. And yet he did it every day, without comment or complaint, not because he thought of himself as particularly heroic or saintly, but because it was just his job.
“…Did you see Mr. Rey’s file in your mother’s office?” Dom asked, dodging a question with another question, steering the conversation away from the precipice of disclosure.
He could have shaken his head all he wanted, but the way Cale’s spine stiffened let Dom know that answer. So that hadn’t been Eliot’s fault either — just a ghost that had followed him from one life to the next, and one he hadn’t even deserved in the first place. Stupid kid indeed. “We need to get back,” Cale said, reaching for the door.
“Cale,” Dom called after him, and as Cale turned at the sound of his name, Dom reached into his suit jacket and pulled out his business card and a ballpoint pen. “I’m going to write my home phone number on the back,” he said as he did so, “and I want you to call me day or night if you need anything, or think of anything — or if you want to change anything and you don’t know how.”
Cale didn’t respond, but he took the card and looked at both sides before shoving it into his back pocket. That done, he opened the door for Dom and set to retracing their steps back toward the front office.
The others that had been around the table were waiting for them in the hallway, and Cale walked into his mother’s arms more readily than Dom had ever seen an adolescent allow parental affection at all, much less in public. She was shorter than he by half a foot, but he put his head on her shoulder anyway, and Alicia kissed his hair. “Thank you, Mr. Abarca,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” Dom nodded, and he gave her the most comforting smile he could. It felt more than a little disingenuous, presenting himself as so friendly when he supposed he was technically rooting for the other side to be the one telling the truth — except there were no clear sides here, just one complicated mess, and deep down he wanted Cale to walk away from this as cleanly as he wanted Eliot to. What made his heart sick was knowing there wasn’t a hope in hell it would work out that way.
Holmgreen shook his hand first, then Clint’s. “We’ll be in touch,” she promised without hostility. The bell rang and she turned to lead Alicia and Cale out the front doors before passing period could crowd the hallway with onlookers. Dom watched them go, and just before they reached the doors, he saw Cale glance back over his shoulder, looking straight at Dom, his face unreadable; and then he was gone, meaning all that was left for Dom was to sit, and to wait.
As it turned out, he didn’t have to wait long. A few minutes after eleven that night, the phone rang, and though Dom knew he should have been sleeping at that hour, he wasn’t. He grabbed the receiver, dislodging Carmen from where she’d fallen asleep just above his head, now a furry hat disgruntled about being removed. “Domingo Abarca,” he said, hoping his voice wasn’t too late-night rough.
“Mr. Abarca?” asked a quiet voice that after this morning’s conversation, Dom would have known anywhere. “It’s Cale.”
“Hello, Cale.” Dom sat up in bed, and Carmen, sensing that a lap had been formed, went about the business of putting herself in the middle of it.
“How do I take it back?” Cale’s voice cracked on the last word, the sound of a teenaged boy who’d thought he had it all together before he tried giving voice to it, and Dom found himself momentarily paralyzed by the entire sentence. “I want to take it all back, how do I take it back?”
Dom gripped the receiver so tight that his hand began to hurt, which at least convinced him that it wasn’t a dream. “You can. It’s all right. I’ll help you.”
On the other side of the phone, Cale let out a muffled sob, and Dom wondered where he might be calling from — somewhere in his house, no doubt, using whatever phone was farthest from his mother’s bedroom, trying not to wake her. “I just … didn’t want it to get like this. I thought I’d say it and get the other guys to say it too, and he’d take it back, and then it’d be over. I didn’t think there’d be lawyers and all these meetings and–”
“Cale! Cale, it’s all right.” Projecting an air of calm professionalism over the phone wasn’t one of Dom’s most well-developed talents, but he did what he could. “Calm down.”
“I thought he’d tell,” Cale moaned, sounding miserable. “I … I fucking suck, I thought he’d tell and my mom … and then she’d….”
“Cale,” said Dom again, and when Cale didn’t say anything for several seconds, Dom took his chance to continue. “You’re doing the right thing. For yourself and for Mr. Rey. I promise I’ll help you get this sorted out. Tomorrow morning, I’ll make the calls, I’ll get everyone there, and all you have to do is say just what you said to me at first: that you want to recant your statement. You don’t have to say why, and you don’t have to explain anything you don’t want to.”
Cale sniffled, but Dom could hear a quiet nod of assent, punctuated at the end by a sniffle. “Are you going to be there?”
“Is Mr. Rey?”
Unsure as to which answer would make Cale more comfortable, Dom decided to stick with the truth: “Yes. At least, I feel he should be. Do you agree?”
There was a moment’s hesitation, then Cale drew in a sharp breath and let it out slowly. “Yeah. Okay. No, yeah.”
After extracting a double promise from Cale neither to do anything drastic before the morning nor to say anything to anyone else before everyone was present, Dom hung up the phone and set his alarm for four o’clock the next morning. It was so early it pained him to think about it, but he needed to get this settled more than he needed sleep, and he didn’t know how long he could delay before Cale changed his mind again.
He thought about picking up the phone and calling Eliot first, but couldn’t bring himself to get Eliot’s hopes up yet, not while there was still so much uncertainty. Instead, he picked up Carmen and cuddled her to his chest, where she grudgingly let herself be embraced. “Oh, hush,” he told her as she squirmed, “this is what pets are for.” She seemed unconvinced, however, so he let her go, whereupon she trotted away, turned around, and promptly returned to fall asleep in her regular place atop his head. He sighed at how some decisions couldn’t be forced, and let her purr lull him toward sleep.
The phone calls started at five-thirty, and by ten o’clock, all relevant participants were gathered in the conference room at the district’s main offices: district employees, lawyers aplenty, Cale and his mother at one end of the table, and Eliot down at the other. Two separate cameras were recording the proceedings, and a secretary had even been called in to take notes for good measure. Dom sat at the center of the table, trying to maintain a position of neutrality, despite how, having gathered the troops at Cale’s behest, he looked if anything like he was siding against Eliot. With everything in place and all eyes and ears on Cale, Dom gave him the nod to begin.
Despite appearing about as sleepless as Dom himself, Cale looked far better than he had the other day, pacified with the kind of gallows calm of a man who knew the worst had already happened and therefore couldn’t hurt him anymore. Though Dom had been braced for this to take several hours, Cale got out his confession in a matter of minutes, and with very little interrogation: he and his three friends had found the papers on the internet, since none of them had read the book; Cale had decided to cheat because of growing pressure from his mother to succeed, and when his friends had heard what he had done, they’d wanted in on it; when called on the cheating, Cale had gone to Mr. Rey’s house to try and talk to him, leaving quickly and after nothing at all inappropriate had happened; when talking to Mr. Rey hadn’t worked, Cale had told the others to accuse him of inappropriate sexual advances, because he’d heard some kids say that Mr. Rey was gay. He made no mention of viewing Eliot’s file or what exactly had been offered at the apartment that night, and Dom let both of those go.
During Cale’s entire confession, Dom glanced at Eliot only once, and that was when Cale finally lifted his head, looked his teacher in the eye, and said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Rey.” Then all eyes turned, not just Dom’s, to the quiet man at the far end of the table, who hadn’t said so much as a word to anyone since they’d walked into the room. Anyone who might have expected some triumphalism or at least some relief in his eyes found neither; instead, Eliot looked as though he’d been the one who’d just finished confessing his sins. There was no good end to this, no way for him to win without having it happen at Cale’s expense, and thus Dom didn’t blame him for being unable to find a reason to smile.
“It’s all right,” said Eliot softly, even though it wasn’t.
The next hour disappeared into the open jaws of legalese as parties clustered up, signing papers and conferring with one another. Dom, who could find no real way to justify his continued presence in the room, stepped out the door and milled about the entrance, shuffling through other pages in his briefcase and trying to pretend he could concentrate on anything but what was going on inside. At long last, a cloud of people emerged, at the center of which shuffled Cale in the arms of his red-eyed mother; they were followed after another minute by Clint and the secretary, and on their heels came a subdued Eliot.
“I’d say you’re off the hook,” Clint said, shaking Eliot’s hand as the secretary bustled off back to her real duties, “but I’ve got to stay here and sort a couple things out with Ms. Holmgreen, so if you want to wait out in the lobby, there’s a vending machine, maybe Dom can show you where they keep the coffee around here.”
“Oh, is he your ride?” asked Dom, pointing to Clint, and when Eliot nodded, Dom fished his own keys out of his pocket. “Don’t worry about it, Clint, I can give him a lift.”
“You sure?” Clint asked in that way people sometimes did when they didn’t want to protest but felt politeness compelled them to.
“Not a problem. On my way, anyway.” Dom smiled and shook Clint’s hand, then turned to Eliot. “You got everything?”
Eliot patted the olive-green messenger bag slung across his shoulder and nodded, and as Dom set out for the parking lot, he followed. The others had congregated near Martha’s office, just off the way from the main hall, but none of them so much acknowledged the two men as they walked by. That was all right, though; Dom didn’t feel good about anything that had happened, and wasn’t sure he was quite ready yet to see what was written in their eyes.
Neither he nor Eliot looked at one another as they crossed the lot to Dom’s car and climbed in either side. Eliot tucked himself up in the passenger seat and didn’t say a word, not even as Dom, instead of taking the ramp onto the Crosstown Expressway that would lead him to Eliot’s house, drove straight beneath it and kept going in the opposite direction. Dom kept quiet as well, thinking neither about the events just past or what might happen next, focusing only on what he needed to get the car to its destination. The midday drive was uneventful, and at last he pulled into his own driveway, parked, and got out, trusting that Eliot would follow him as he unlocked the back door and stepped into his kitchen.
Carmen hopped up on the counter to meet them, giving Eliot’s hand a few cautious sniffs before she deigned to let him scritch her behind the ears. She allowed this for a moment before wandering off, tail held high, leaving her men to divest themselves of their various baggage by the back door. And then, almost as though they’d planned it all along, Dom extended his arms and Eliot fell into them, burying his face in the fabric of Dom’s shirt as Dom drew him into a tight embrace, stroking his back and murmuring comforting nonsense. He could only allow himself to think of the true potential horror of the situation now that it had passed, tracing the path of the bullets they’d already dodged. But they were safe now, and they had one another.
After nearly five minutes of just standing there in the kitchen, Dom let go and took Eliot’s hand in his, locking their fingers together. Eyes half-downcast, Eliot let himself be led down the path Dom had envisioned: through the living room, down the hallway, into Dom’s bedroom. No clothing came off in the process, no one was caught into a fierce kiss or pressed up against a wall — they just walked together, one after the other, exhausted by relief.
In the bedroom, Eliot sat down on one side of the bed and kicked off his loafers and socks, then lay otherwise fully clothed against the pillow, shutting his eyes. Dom paused to take off his dress shirt and tie as well as his boots and socks, but he was still wearing his trousers, undershirt, and belt when he lay down as well. He extended his arm across Eliot’s pillow and Eliot snuggled closer, resting his head on Dom’s arm and draping his own arm across Dom’s belly. “Did I take your side of the bed?” Eliot mumbled, his quiet concern surfacing through the exhaustion in his voice.
“No, actually.” Dom kissed his hair. “You took Carmen’s side.” Despite how the clock on his bed read a few minutes before noon, and how he knew that if he wasn’t going to show up again at the office that day the least he could do was call, Dom couldn’t bring himself to move. He felt as though he hadn’t slept in days — which, he supposed, he mostly hadn’t — and the room was dark, and Eliot was warm, and Dom felt certain that had his entire house that very moment caught fire, he would have been hard-pressed to summon the energy to evacuate.
Eliot laughed softly and gave Dom a light squeeze. “Well, if she comes and smothers me in my sleep, I’ll know I deserved it.”
Dom wanted to joke about his being a poor parent to have raised such an ill-mannered cat, but he shut his eyes instead, and in the warm dark, he was asleep in moments.
To his great distress, he woke alone.
The blackout curtains over the bedroom’s only windows kept out most light at all times of the day, but Dom could still tell from the room’s remaining glow that several hours had passed since they’d fallen asleep together. His bedside clock now showed the time as 5:39. He felt his stomach turn to water. He’d been an idiot for falling asleep, a complete idiot, and now his brain was sure that if he stepped out into the rest of the house, he’d find it empty, with only the telephone book turned to a page of taxi services and a good-bye note scribbled on the pad of paper he kept on his refrigerator for grocery lists–
Before he could work himself into too deep of a what did I do wrong? panic frenzy, however, the bathroom door opened and Eliot stepped out, one towel wrapped around his middle, another in the process of drying his long hair. He looked surprised to see Dom awake, but that surprise turned quickly into a broad smile. “Sorry, I didn’t know what towels I should use, so I just got some that were folded up in the hall closet. Is that okay?”
The gearshift from total panic to relief was so abrupt that Dom stalled out for a minute, and he tried to cover for it by sitting better upright in bed. “Sure, that’s….” He shook his head, trying to clear out the cobwebs. “You were … just taking a shower. Got it.”
Eliot frowned in confusion, then started laughing self-consciously. “Oh, God, did you think I’d left?” He draped the towel completely over his head and said, half-muffled, “I am so sorry.”
“I didn’t!” Dom protested, but he couldn’t make it sound convincing. “…All right, I did. But I woke up about two seconds ago, so my brain’s still a little wrapped in cotton.”
Eliot peeked out from beneath the towel. “I’m sorry, I just … woke up all sweaty and gross, and I’d drooled on you a little, so I thought….”
“It’s fine! I promise, it’s fine. I could probably use a shower myself.” Dom bent down to sniff at his undershirt, then promptly wished he hadn’t. “Make that ‘definitely’.”
“I think you smell good.” Giving his hair one last ruffle with the towel, Eliot tossed it over the hook on the door — then paused for a moment before removing, with a mild flourish, the second towel that had previously been covering him navel to knees. That one joined its twin on the hook, and at last Eliot stood there naked, his still-damp hair sticking in curls to his neck and shoulders, giving Dom the unfortunate problem of being unable to stop staring. Clothed, Eliot gave off the impression that he might be rail-thin beneath his chosen layers of fabric, but now Dom could see that was hardly the case: Eliot’s body was slim, to be sure, but also muscled like a swimmer’s, lean and tough. A small patch of dark hair on his chest petered out as it traveled downward, stopping entirely over his flat stomach, then appeared again just below his navel, widening and spreading toward….
Dom blushed fierce red and looked away, trying — and failing — to think of anything but the thick, soft cock he’d seen emerging from the dark curls at Eliot’s hips. “Sorry, I–”
“Sorry?” Eliot laughed and walked closer, making no attempt to hide himself. “If you think you’re going to save basically my entire life without getting laid, you’ve got another think coming.”
“I….” Bundling up the covers at his hips, Dom realized, was a completely ineffectual way of disguising how hard he had become. “You … really might not want to, I haven’t in a long time, I might not be any good at it anymore….”
Eliot laughed and crawled into bed next to Dom, tucking his head up against Dom’s shoulder, his damp hair cool against Dom’s skin. “It’s a good thing I’m still a certified teacher, then,” he purred, reaching under the covers and tugging up Dom’s shirt until he could place his hand flat against Dom’s bare belly. Dom felt instantly self-conscious, especially now that his soft body was being displayed in comparison with Eliot’s handsome musculature, but not only did Eliot not seem to mind, Dom could feel his mouth move as his smile broadened. “How do you usually like it?”
Dom coughed out an embarrassed little sound. “I think ‘usually’ usually implies someone’s gotten laid more recently than 1987.”
Eliot lifted his head, expression caught in a look of honest surprise. “What a crime.” He slid his hand higher up under Dom’s shirt while cuddling closer, until his own naked body was pressed right up next to Dom’s, not counting the covers and the clothes Dom was still wearing. “Do you know what I thought, when I first met you?”
“Do I want to know?”
“Of course you do.” Eliot laughed and then climbed on top of Dom, their bodies pressed chest-to-chest, and not even the fabric between them could disguise how hard Eliot was growing with each passing moment. “I thought, here is a man who needs to be kissed until he can’t stand it anymore.”
Dom’s smile at this was tempered by how it reminded him of what Magali had said and how she’d known what he was on sight. “You mean, here’s a lonely homosexual in the deep, dark South?” he asked, sounding far bitterer than he had intended.
“Please,” Eliot said, nuzzling the five o’clock shadow beneath Dom’s jaw, “if anything, it was more, here’s another lonely homosexual in the deep, dark South.” He hugged Dom closer, and Dom reckoned that meant it was all right to put his hands on Eliot’s bare back, which he did, amazed at how warm Eliot’s skin felt. “We learn to look for one another. It’s how we survive.”
Dom scoffed, despite his best efforts otherwise. “I wasn’t even completely sure about you until halfway through our first date.”
Eliot laughed again, looking younger and more carefree than Dom had seen him in the past week, and possibly since the first time they’d met. “If you’re going to be a proper homosexual, we’ll have to work on your gaydar.”
“My what?” asked Dom; he was fairly sure he hadn’t heard that right.
Instead of answering, though, Eliot kissed him full on the mouth, deep and soft as he pressed their bodies together tight. He shifted and situated himself as best as he could with his knees on either side of Dom’s hips, and Dom held on to make sure Eliot didn’t topple off to either side, which mostly had the effect of relocating his hands down even closer to Eliot’s round behind, something Eliot didn’t seem to mind at all. “On second thought,” Eliot said after a moment, leaving his lips at the corner of Dom’s mouth, “I like you better like this. If you’re convinced I’m the only other gay man in the world, I’ll never have to worry about your running off with someone else.”
“Considering,” Dom began, though he was aware his voice was suddenly strained by the weight of Eliot’s erection pressing against his own, “where you are right now, I don’t think I’m running off anywhere anytime soon.”
Eliot’s grin grew wicked as he pulled back until he and Dom could see one another’s faces in full. “You didn’t have any plans this weekend, did you?”
A previous appointment nagged at him, though it took Dom’s blood-starved brain a moment to drag it back up. “There was a point where I was making you dinner….”
Eliot quirked his mouth to one side in a wry smirk. “And breakfast?”
Dom felt his cheeks pinken even further. “I … very honestly hadn’t planned that far ahead.”
“I’ll tell you what.” Eliot scooted back until he was sitting on top of Dom’s knees, then peeled back the covers so Dom’s body was exposed to his upper thighs; Dom fought back the urge to cover himself, and instead folded his hands behind his head and under his pillow, just in case his own self-control were not enough to conquer his bashfulness. With slow, deliberate moves, Eliot unbuckled Dom’s belt. “You fix dinner, I’ll fix breakfast, and the rest of the time we can spend right here.”
“That….” Dom took a deep breath and let it out in a heavy shudder. “We could work that out.”
Eliot laughed as he yanked Dom’s belt out of its loops, then unfastened his trousers. He slipped off the back of the bed, taking pants, underwear, and most of the covers with him, until Dom was naked from the waist down on a half-stripped bed, hard and exposed and certain inside that once Eliot saw his soft body and round belly clearly, he’d reconsider whatever he’d been planning. Contrary to these expectations, though, Eliot smiled and ran his hands down the length of Dom’s thighs. “Also, the first time I met you, I thought you needed a blowjob, and the best part about realizing that you were gay was knowing that you might let me give you one.”
Dom opened his mouth to give some clever reply, something so witty and urbane that it would make even the well-educated English teacher impressed with his charm and character, but then Eliot’s lips were surrounding the head of his cock and all capacity for rational speech was gone. He gasped instead, a choked sound that at once surprised him with its intensity and made Eliot grin. Eliot’s tongue teased at the head of his cock, flickering back and forth as quickly as someone might scratch a small itch, and Dom felt his balls begin to clench already. With a deep breath, Dom fixed his hands into fists and willed his body not to embarrass him.
His body, however, was far from listening; instead, it was entirely focused on what was happening to his cock, so much so that the tips of his fingers and toes tingled with every brush of Eliot’s tongue. He’d been blown before, usually in or behind Austin’s seedier dive bars during his undergraduate years, but never by someone with this much experience and care. Little sounds escaped his mouth every time he exhaled. He wanted to watch Eliot’s beautiful mouth at work, but didn’t know how much he could see and not shoot off instantly, so he settled for gazing with half-lidded eyes, wavering back and forth between too much and not enough.
Had he needed a blowjob? He wasn’t sure, but he knew he’d definitely wanted one from the minute Eliot had turned that smile on him and sidled up in the crowded room, while Dom had used the noise as an excuse to get as close as he could to the man he’d known was probably straight but who miraculously had turned out otherwise. He hadn’t let himself so much as hope that about anyone in years, when all of a sudden he found himself face to face with a man who made it hard to hope for anything else. Perhaps he had known that about Eliot and just hadn’t let himself believe it, fearing disappointment. But there was no disappointment here, not as Eliot sucked his cock with the intensity of a man who’d wanted this just as much, for just as long.
“I’m,” Dom gasped, feeling a teenager again, barely able to last five minutes despite how he would have been content letting Eliot continue forever. He felt his muscles begin to tighten, his cock harden painfully — and then a sense of terrible emptiness as Eliot pulled back from his cock with a smirk. After a beat, it was clear that Eliot wasn’t just stopping so that Dom didn’t come in his mouth, he was stopping entirely, and a wave of disappointment so fierce it made him groan ripped through Dom’s body. “Oh, God….”
“Consider this your first lesson,” Eliot smirked, petting Dom’s hip.
Dom shook his head. “I don’t want to learn this lesson. This is a terrible lesson.”
Eliot laughed again, kissing the tip of Dom’s cock. “It’s a,” he chuckled, “hard lesson. Not a terrible one.”
“Counsel begs to differ.” Releasing one of his hands from beneath the pillow, Dom sat up a fraction and reached down to stroke the curve of Eliot’s face, feeling where the smooth skin of his cheek ran into the rough patch of his goatee; Eliot turned his face so that his lips brushed Dom’s palm. “…Is this a lesson about saying ‘please’?”
“More about specificity.” Eliot grinned, nipping at Dom’s fingers. “And asking for what you want.”
Had any blood been left north of his waist, Dom was certain it all would have gone to his cheeks then, turning them past red and on into purple. He’d never been comfortable with even hearing dirty talk from others, and was near-certain the word ‘blowjob’ had never actually passed his lips. A combination of general embarrassment and simply having no one appropriate to say such things to had deprived Dom of anything even approaching the capacity for dirty talk. “Don’t … don’t stop? …Please?”
“Mm, come on.” Eliot played with Dom’s balls with the tips of his fingers, stroking and caressing them without actually providing anywhere near the pressure he’d need to get off. “You’re an attorney. Make your case.”
“I want….” The fear of looking stupid was almost crippling, but in the end it was beaten out by sheer physical need. “P-please … keep … keep sucking me.”
“Well, I suppose I could. But what will you give me if I do?” Eliot grabbed Dom’s thumb between his teeth and flicked his tongue across its tip in the same manner he’d attended to Dom’s cock earlier, and Dom gasped as his cock twitched hard, jerking upright as though begging him to do something, anything about its plight.
“I….” Dom took a deep breath and licked his lips. “I’ll do it for you.”
“You’ll give me a blowjob,” Eliot provided.
Dom nodded, feeling a bit lightheaded. “I’ll give you a blowjob.” In that state he might have agreed to anything, but he wanted this, this in particular, and they both knew it.
Eloit hummed as though he were thinking this over, casual as a Sunday walk, but he moved his body to get in a less awkward position, exposing his own cock, which was so hard it pushed a dent into the mattress where he lay. “You’ve got a deal,” he smiled, and he took Dom’s short, fat cock so deep into his mouth that his nose pressed up against the skin of Dom’s belly. There he sucked hard, moving past all the teasing of earlier, making up for lost time.
Dom exploded in Eliot’s mouth, this time without warning, though neither one was surprised. Eliot just swallowed him down with a greedy grin, holding Dom’s hand as Dom writhed against the sheets. At last, Dom exhaled and let his body fall limp back against the bed, eyes shut, gasping for breath.
He didn’t have long to recover, though; as much as Eliot’s tease had sharpened Dom’s need, his own was just as unsatisfied. With a quick pause to wipe his mouth against the sheets, Eliot moved cat-quick toward the head of the bed and knelt next to Dom’s face, placing his own stiff, uncut cock well in Dom’s reach. Without any hesitation — and because he had promised, disregarding how he wouldn’t have refused even if he hadn’t — Dom opened his mouth and took Eliot’s full length inside.
He may not have been able to say the word, but he had no problems doing the deed, licking every inch of Eliot’s shaft, committing that taste to memory. Though he hadn’t had another man’s penis in his mouth in over a decade, some things never got forgotten. Despite having just come, he felt his own cock start to stir again, and he began to appreciate the full merits of Eliot’s suggestion that they spend the weekend in bed. Eliot groaned and grabbed at the headboard for support, which gave Dom all the confidence he needed to grab Eliot’s ass and make sure he didn’t decide that this, too, should be interrupted for didactic purposes.
It did Dom’s ego a world of good when Eliot didn’t last even as long as Dom himself had, pause for discussion or no. “If you don’t like to swallow, you should do something about that very soon,” Eliot gasped, articulate during arousal in a way that was to Dom both bizarre and a perfectly Eliot way to be. Warning heard, Dom instead did the opposite, redoubling his efforts and making sure Eliot’s cock was far enough in his mouth that he wouldn’t miss a drop. At last, Eliot’s hips bucked and he came, filling his mouth with a warm, salty taste that was almost nostalgic. And the promise that he might be able to experience it again — at least this weekend, and more likely many more times to come — made Dom grin as he swallowed Eliot dry.
He kept Eliot’s cock in his mouth until it was fully soft again, at which point Eliot himself pulled free and collapsed back against the bed in a heap. Dom snuggled close to him as best he could, rearranging them until they fit like spoons, with Dom’s arm over Eliot’s waist and his lips pressed to the back of Eliot’s neck. Eliot took a great breath and let it out in a shudder that turned into a laugh. “1987? Really?”
“Cross my heart.” Dom smiled and hugged Eliot close.
“Yeah, I’m definitely not letting you get away.” Eliot wriggled his hips, which, in their current position, had the effect of rubbing his ass up against Dom’s half-hard cock. “Not while there’s still so many more things to make you ask for.”
Dom’s eyes grew wide. “I’ve never done … that. In particular.”
Eliot laughed and wriggled closer, fitting his body tighter into Dom’s embrace. “I’m nothing if not a patient instructor,” he promised, and Dom couldn’t help smiling as he leaned over Eliot’s shoulder to help make good on Eliot’s desire to kiss him until he couldn’t stand it anymore. Right about now, in fact, he felt like he could stand just about anything.
The empty school was spooky, something out of a horror movie where all the buildings remained but the people had vanished. Eliot waved at the security guard who sat just inside the front entrance, keeping watch while still keeping cool, and the husky man waved them on by. Dom felt a little better when he strained his ears toward the other end of the building and heard the sounds of whatever team had gathered for a Sunday afternoon practice, but Eliot turned the other direction, and presently distance swallowed everything but the noise their feet made as they walked down the halls. He didn’t dare hold Eliot’s hand here, no matter how alone they thought they were, but he brushed the backs of his knuckles against the backs of Eliot’s, and felt his heart lift as Eliot smiled.
Though Dom hadn’t been down there in the past few years, he didn’t need to be told which door along the language arts hallway was — had been — Eliot’s. Papers covered the door and spilled out along both sides like an explosion, tacked up with tape and reaching all the way to the classroom doors on either side. Some were panels cut from the local newspaper advertising local cultural events, from live symphony performances to openings of recent Hollywood blockbusters; some were reproductions of famous photographs and works of art, either clipped from glossy magazines or run off on an ink-jet printer that had no doubt seen better days; and some looked to be original works of art and poetry, signed by the students who’d created them. For the few yards on either side of Eliot’s door, the hall became a gallery, part professional and part amateur, curated by the kind of man willing to let the bottom half of Picasso’s The Old Guitarist be covered by a shaky pencil drawing of a battle robot done on graph paper. It was the most beautiful thing Dom had ever seen, and it broke his heart to know he was about to help destroy it.
Eliot unlocked the door and flipped the switch inside, and Dom was struck dumb by what the light revealed: the exhibition outside looked threadbare compared to what Eliot had done inside. Here were student works aplenty, but even the largest painted posterboards were dwarfed by glossy posters, some the size hung out in front of movie theaters and offered for sale in museum bookshops. Whatever shade the walls beneath had been painted was near-invisible now, as almost every square inch sported some print or poster or reproduction. In front of them hung sculptures of wire and papier-mâché, all of which had the distinct look of high school art projects, though most no less lovely for that. Boxes covered his desk, and Eliot sighed as he looked over a few stacks of paper that had obviously been cleared off and placed on the floor. “Whatever sub they got must hate me,” he said, shaking his head.
“This is incredible,” said Dom, still transfixed by the collection on the walls. “I mean … where did you even get all this stuff?” He paused to examine a vintage tin soap ad featuring a woman holding on to a bike’s handlebars while flying behind it; the woman was naked, albeit in the manner of a Greek statue, not a Playboy centerfold. “And how the hell did you get them to let you put it up?”
“I tend to think it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.” Eliot shrugged and unlocked his desk drawer with a tiny key on his keyring. “Even if my track record isn’t good with either.”
A tall, thin metal bookshelf stood near the chalkboard, stuffed with books of poetry and plastered on all sides with student poems, some handwritten, some typeset. The most prominent was one penned in thick purple letters, Spanish down the right side of the paper, English down the right, and a student’s name signed at the bottom. “Going to keep all this?” Dom asked.
Eliot laughed. “I never throw anything away.” He paused and sighed again, slumping back in his chair and folding his hands over his stomach before shutting his eyes. “Which doesn’t make moving any easier. Maybe I’ve got to stop accumulating so much stuff.”
Dom, who had owned his house for the past eight years and still doubted he had enough possessions to fill even a small trailer, began to pull the papers off the cabinet and stack together the magnets that had held them there. “Or maybe you just need to stop moving.”
This time Eliot’s laugh had a bitter edge. “Find me a place that wants me for more than nine months and I’ll be glad to settle down.”
Dom was working through the phrasing of an apology in his head when there was a knock on the door that startled both of them. “Mr. Rey?” asked the security guard from earlier, leaning in the open door. “There’s some kids here, say they’re looking for you.”
“Let them in,” said Dom, before Eliot could respond with any confusion that might give the guard cause to question the wisdom of allowing several teenagers in on the weekend. “It’s all right, they’re here with us.” He kept his eyes straight toward the door, avoiding any of Eliot’s attempts to inquire via eye contact precisely what was going on, trusting instead that the situation would explain itself.
Eliot’s jaw damn near hit the ground as Magali walked in first, still in long sleeves and long pants despite the blistering summer weather outside, followed by five other students around the same age as she. They huddled by the door, all looking so strange and assorted that Dom couldn’t really imagine their running in the same social circles under normal circumstances. But some circumstances were less normal than others. “Heard you needed help cleaning,” Magali shrugged, placing herself at the head of the pack and giving Dom a little nod; Dom smiled back and gave a little wave. “So … here we are.”
For a moment, Eliot said nothing — for so long, in fact, that Dom was afraid that he might have been mad, that maybe he’d just wanted to slink off quietly and Dom had ruined his entire plan for a quiet getaway. But then Eliot reached up and took his glasses from his face, rubbing at the corners of his eyes, and Dom could see that he was crying. “You guys,” he managed before his voice broke and tears spilled down his cheeks.
“Hey, hey,” said Magali, dragging the back of his sleeve across her eyes, “don’t you start that shit. You don’t got mascara on.”
That startled a laugh out of Eliot’s emotional state, and he stood with his arms outstretched as though for an embrace — then stopped and let them fall, mindful of the distance both literal and figurative between them. “I don’t know what to say … except did you have anything to do with this?” Eliot asked, slowly turning a comically incisive gaze on Dom.
Caught red-handed, Dom just smiled. “Luna made the calls; I just gave her the details.”
“Well.” Eliot shook his head as he looked over the assembled students, all of whom managed to look earnest and awkward at once. “Well! Introductions: Bobby, Edmond, Anna, Magali–”
“We’ve met,” Magali interrupted, giving Dom a sheepish smile.
“Laurel, Caitlin, this is Mr. Abarca,” Eliot said, gesturing to Dom, then adding, after a moment’s pause, “…my boyfriend.”
It shocked Dom cold to hear that said at all, much less in front of others, but every one of the kids’ faces brightened to hear it, and one of the girls — Anna, if Dom remembered correctly — clapped her hands excitedly in front of her mouth. With the force of such enthusiastic responses trained on him, Dom couldn’t help smiling. “Mr. Abarca if you see me in a suit, but I’m Dom on the weekends.” Hell, if they knew about his relationship with Eliot, letting them call him by his first name seemed a nothing step.
Eliot folded his arms across his chest as he looked over the students in front of him, holding himself at a distance even now, not only off the clock but technically off the job. The phone call from Martha had been apologetic without being sympathetic, and Eliot had taken the news standing in Dom’s kitchen, wearing only a pair of Dom’s old boxers that were tied as tight as they’d go and still nearly falling off his hips; he’d looked neither sad nor surprised, but somewhere more in the vicinity of resigned, speaking the variants on ‘yes’ and ‘I understand’ and ‘thank you’ that he’d needed to agree to his own termination. Dom hadn’t been surprised either, but had ridden his reaction all the way into an uncharacteristic flash of temper, so much so that he’d kicked a chair and spooked Carmen. Eliot had let him clench his fists and curse about how it wasn’t fucking fair, and then he’d put his hands on either side of Dom’s face and kissed him quiet again, whispering to him that it was okay, it was okay. And if Eliot could face this with dignity, then by God, so could Dom.
It was one thing to be strong in the face of someone else’s openly falling apart, though, and quite another to keep a stiff upper lip while facing down six people who were trying to do the same at the same time. “Okay, well, I won’t say no to free help moving! Right. …You know, I didn’t think I was going to get a chance to see any of you again.” Eliot scratched at the back of his neck, toeing awkwardly at the floor with one well-worn sandal.
Caitlin, obviously the youngest of the bunch, shrugged with her hands shoved in her pockets. “Come on, Mr. Rey. Don’t you got to give us some parting wisdom or something?”
“Wisdom?” Eliot shook his head. “I’m afraid I’m all out of…. All right, no, maybe I’m out of wisdom, but I think I at least get some last requests, don’t I? So … here, I’ve got two … no, make it three things I want you all to do for me. But you have to agree to them first.”
Bobby, the taller of the boys, quirked his mouth to one side. “You do realize how fishy that sounds.”
“Maybe. But promise anyway.”
There was a pause, and then six voices murmured ‘I promise’ in near-unison. “Good, because the first one’s the hardest: I want you to be nice to Cale. Now–” Before any of the students could get out more than a few words of protest, Eliot raised a hand, and to both his and their credit, they stopped short. “Now, I know this is difficult, but he’s had it rough — not rougher than any of you, maybe, but you can’t ever judge what you would’ve done in someone else’s shoes.”
Magali looked mad enough to spit. “I could kick his ass for you.”
“Yes,” said Eliot, biting back a smile that looked satisfying, if not entirely professional, “I’m sure you could, but I’m asking you not to. You don’t have to be his friend, but anything you heard him say in this room was said in confidence, and while he lied about me, he never said anything, true or false, about anyone else. I believe that he’ll keep your secrets, and I expect you to keep his.”
While most of the students looked perched on the edge of grudging acceptance, the girl whose handbag had Laurel stitched on the side seemed to be of the same opinion as Magali. “He’s a jackass,” she grumbled.
“Maybe, but he’s a jackass you made a promise to.” Eliot looked at them all with an expectant face until every one of them — even Magali — sighed and nodded. “Thank you. Second, I just … want you to keep thinking about what comes after this. Whenever stuff seems bad, or you’re thinking like you can’t do it anymore, just remember, there’s a whole big world outside of this school, outside of this city and state, even outside the country, if that’s what you want. I don’t want to lie to you and tell you that there’s a point where everything just magically becomes okay for people like us, because … well, because it obviously doesn’t. But that’s no reason to quit. Don’t give up; just keep moving on. All right?”
Dom couldn’t even imagine what it would have been like to have heard that at seventeen. He’d been too quiet and too Catholic for all his life to get even to the precipice of actually killing himself, but that didn’t mean he didn’t know the clouded, guilty looks the students got on their faces from having seen the same in the mirror for most of his adolescence. At last — after long even than it had taken them to agree to Eliot’s first difficult stipulation — they all nodded. “Christ, what’s the third?” asked Laurel, who seemed more and more like Magali at every moment; Dom even caught her tugging at the long cuff of Magali’s sleeve with her fingertips. “Cure cancer?”
“Well, if you do I won’t say no, but….” Eliot pointed to the amazing cathedral of posters and papers he’d assembled, now slated for demolition. “Third is don’t bend the corners. I’m very particular about my corners.”
At that, the tension in the atmosphere lifted and they all relaxed, even Eliot, whose smile was at once the bravest and most beautiful. Dom walked over to his side and hesitated only a moment before taking Eliot’s hand in his, not caring that they might be seen; they would likely never get an audience less hostile than this one. “You’re very particular about a lot of things.”
“I simply know what I like,” said Eliot, lifting himself on his tiptoes to kiss the corner of Dom’s mouth, and the round of cheers and wolf whistles that produced let Dom believe, at least for that moment, that everything might actually turn out all right.
He lingered on after five o’clock, mostly wanting to let the building and parking lot clear out so he didn’t have to wade through another round of goodbyes; he’d had plenty at the party they’d thrown him that afternoon, much less in the month since he’d given notice. All that was left was to sweep his desk clean of the last of his personal items and go. While they and the kids had eventually walked out of Eliot’s office with eight book boxes and ten large packing tubes full of material, Dom still had space left in the single paper grocery bag he’d grabbed from the office kitchen. All the files and furnishings would stay, ready for the young woman who’d step into his shoes come Monday, eager to pick up where Dom had left off. It was a fine job, he’d told her honestly, but he had his own reasons why he couldn’t do it any longer.
The one he’d never told any of them about was in the picture frame laid flat at the bottom of the bag. To most eyes it was an overexposed photograph of the bayfront at sunrise, downtown where the high tide crashed against the seawall, a seascape with buildings and high clouds and a man too far from the camera to be seen clearly, washed out by the light until he could have been anyone. Dom had taken that picture the morning on their way to the airport, with two large suitcases in the back and a single one-way ticket in the glove compartment.
That had been late June; the paper Far Side calendar on his desk was now well into October. Next to it sat a postcard from Magali, a quick hello from the University of Houston’s early education program. He put both in the bag atop the frame and a few more papers, tossed in what few office supplies he knew he’d bought with his own money, added the nice card that everyone in the office had signed, and rolled the top shut. Another bit of his life closed, and not a moment too soon.
He’d offered to come along months ago, but Eliot had told him it didn’t make sense for both of them to be unemployed, and Dom had grudgingly accepted that logic. He’d cursed his decision, though, as it had become clear by early August that all the positions starting that fall had long been filled. At last, a district south of Boston had offered Eliot a long-term substitute position teaching senior English, with a good chance of having that position or another one like it open permanently in the spring. The words ‘good chance’ spoken over a long-distance connection were all it took to have Dom’s letter of resignation on Martha’s desk the next morning. As he walked out of the building now, he saw the light on in her office but did not stop by; she’d accepted the news of his departure without comment beyond a ‘we’ll miss you’ spoken for a ‘we’ that didn’t include her. Bag tucked under his arm, he handed his office keys and building pass to the guard at the security desk, feeling as though he’d been dragging a stone around and had only just learned how to let it go.
He’d never been to Massachusetts. He wasn’t sure he knew how to get there, much less what the trip would be like driving a U-Haul with only Carmen, stuck in her hated carrier, riding shotgun for company. He had no job prospects lined up, no interviews scheduled. He didn’t know if they could find a place to live before the housing stipend for the extended-stay hotel ran out, much less if that stipend would be shortened if the school district up there found out two grown men were making use of it together. He still had his house on the market with no takers so far. He had no idea what Eliot’s parents, with whom Eliot had been staying while job-hunting, would think of the man who was leaving Texas to be with their son. He had never seen real snow before in his life.
Dom stepped out into the muggy evening and took a deep breath, smelling the familiar salt air off the bay just a few blocks over. He wouldn’t be back here tomorrow, or the day after, or maybe even ever again in his life. But he could carry everything he needed from here, and the rest could fit in a truck, and at the end, more was waiting for him that he could ever leave behind. He didn’t look back once as he climbed into his car and started the engine, ready to go home.