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Who the Hell is V?

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~ Benji’s POV ~

Just as I close the door to the microwave, I hear a knock at my door. I smile to myself. That will be Derek with the movie. I don’t know what movie he’s chosen – he’s been remarkably secretive about it. Knowing him, it will be some documentary about the sociological or psychological impact of something. It doesn’t matter what he chooses. We need tonight. I need a night to forget about Victor and focus on Derek.

Even as I think it, the memory of that night in Willacoochee bounces around my head. It makes me so frustrated; sometimes, I just want to scream. Part of me hates Victor for it. How dare he? How dare he further complicate my already incredibly complicated life? I didn’t ask for this.

I open the door, and Derek gives me a quick kiss. “Hey,” he says softly.

“Hi.” My chest feels heavy, as if my guilt is a small animal that is choosing to sit on my chest in an attempt to suffocate me. It used to be so easy to talk to Derek; at least, it was easier than this. I can’t figure out what to say. I can hear the faint popping of the popcorn from my kitchen, and I jump on that excuse. “I should go check on the popcorn.”

Derek frowns as I walk away. I know I’m being weird. I’ve been weird all week. I don’t know how to act since Victor kissed me. I want to act like nothing happened and like it meant nothing. Because it meant nothing, I remind myself. It doesn’t change the fact that I feel like I did something wrong.

Not for the first time, I wish I could tell Derek, but I know he’ll blow it way out of proportion. I don’t know when I stopped being able to tell him certain things, but I’m hoping to recapture some of that tonight.

“Hey, babe. Do you have Advil?” Derek calls.

“There should be some in the bathroom. If not, I have some in my backpack,” I call back. I pull the popcorn out of the microwave and grab a bowl. Tonight, I tell myself, tonight will fix everything. I just have to pull myself together.

I truly believe that. I truly think that if we have one night to rekindle while my parents are away  to celebrate their anniversary, we’ll get back to a good place, and Victor’s kiss will fade to a distant memory. It will be like it never happened.

At least, I believe that until Derek storms into the kitchen holding a crumpled piece of paper. “Who the hell is V?” he asks. His face is getting red and his eyes are getting big, the way they always do when he’s furious.

“I… what?” I ask. Part of me thinks that maybe if I play dumb, this will go away, but I know he’s not going to let this go. I stare at the note in his hand. I’m such an idiot. I never should have kept it, but once I read it, I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. It didn’t change anything; I still couldn’t be around Victor, but I missed him. We’d become really good friends while we worked together. I didn’t want to entirely let go of those memories.

“I found the note. Who’s V?” he repeats slowly.

“You went through my stuff?” I ask incredulously.

“There wasn’t any Advil in your bathroom. There was, however, a note from a guy who kissed you in your bag. I want to know who he is.” Derek’s not yelling, but he has this way of talking that makes me feel like he is.

“I… can’t tell you that,” I say slowly.

“What the hell?” Derek asks. “Have you been cheating on me? Is that why you won’t tell me?”

“No, it’s not like that. He was just… confused. I think he’s still figuring things out, so he kissed me. It didn’t mean anything,” I tell him.

“Then why didn’t you tell me?” Derek’s voice is getting louder by the second. “If it didn’t mean anything to you, why didn’t you tell me? And why won’t you tell me who he is.”

“I didn’t want to upset you.” Even as I say it, I know it’s a terrible excuse. “Look, I’ve talked to him. I told him that I can’t see him… ever. I won’t tell you who he is because he’s not out yet. I don’t even know if he’s actually gay.” And it’s true. He hadn’t specifically said in his note; he just apologized that he hurt me while he was figuring out what he liked. “Maybe kissing me helped him figure out that he’s not. I don’t know. But I do know that he deserves to figure that out in his own time.”

“You like him,” Derek accuses me.

I hesitate a second too long. “No, of course not.”

Derek slams his hand down on my kitchen table. “I can’t fucking believe this,” he says. “I’ve been nothing but good to you.”

“Nothing but good to me?” I ask incredulously. “What about our relationship has been nothing but good to me? You make fun of me for liking romantic things. You won’t even pretend to be interested in the things I like to do, but if I don’t want to do something you want to do? I’m being selfish.” I shake my head. “But that doesn’t matter because you are the one that I want to be with.”

He purses his lips. “No, I don’t think I am. I think you’re still… figuring things out,” he says nastily.

“Derek, come on. It didn’t mean anything,” I assure him. “Please. Trust me.”

He shakes his head. “If it didn’t mean anything you would have told me,” he insists. I resist the urge to tell him that the way he’s acting right now is exactly the reason that I didn’t tell him. He closes his eyes for a second. “I don’t think I can trust you right now, and I can’t be with someone that I don’t trust.”

“Are you breaking up with me?” I ask him incredulously.

“Yeah, I guess I am.” He has a neutral look on his face which is somehow worse than his angry face. “I’m gonna go.”

“Derek, please,” I say.

“No. I don’t wanna hear it,” he snaps. He takes one last look at me, shakes his head, and leaves.

I’m left alone in my kitchen with a full bowl of popcorn and a feeling of emptiness that is rapidly spreading through my chest.

 

~ Victor’s POV ~

“I told you that I can just come over after my shift,” I remind Mia as I pass her the coffee I just made. I know it’s a normal girlfriend thing to see a boyfriend at work, but it’s really inconvenient for me right now.

She shrugs. “I didn’t get to see you last weekend and you’ve been working so much since they promoted Benji,” she says with a small smile. I feel myself growing flustered at the reminder of my lie. I panicked when she asked why Benji wasn’t working with me anymore and that was the first thing that came to mind. “I wanted to see you. I figure I can wait here and talk to you when you’re not busy. Like now.”

She moves her hand to cover mine, and I quickly reach for the towel that’s under the counter as an excuse to avoid the contact.

I nod nervously. I need to tell her. Today. It’s the whole reason I texted her about coming over. Simon is right. The time will never be right and stringing her along another three weeks until the dance would be cruel.

She gets this disappointed, angry look on her face. It’s a look I’ve seen way too often over the last several weeks. The guilt gnaws at my chest.

“I have to clean up,” I say quickly. Usually I would have delegated it to the new girl, Victoria, but I need the escape. I disappear in the back for a minute to compose myself. How am I ever going to tell her?

I hear the bell ring, and I go back out to the front. Victoria is still training, so I’m supposed to oversee the drinks she makes. “Mom. Dad. What are you doing here?” I ask.

“You’ve been working here for months, mijo. We wanted to see where the magic happens,” my mom says. “And we’re taking Adrian and Pilar shopping. We could use the pick-me-up.” Pilar is wearing the same disgruntled expression she’s had on since she got grounded for getting her tongue pierced, so I have no doubt shopping with her has been a nightmare.

“Of course,” I say with a tense smile. “What do you want?”

“What do you recommend?”

Before I have a chance to make a suggestion, Mia comes over. “Hey,” she says. “You didn’t tell me your parents were coming in.”

“I didn’t know,” I say uncomfortably. I think it’s obvious to everyone that something is off with me and Mia. Mia pretends not to notice. I think she hopes that if she ignores it, it will just go away. It makes me feel endlessly guilty.

My dad looks at me curiously, but I can’t meet his gaze. Being surrounded by all the people I still need to come out to is far more stressful than I’d anticipated. “I’ll get started on your coffees.”

They didn’t give me an order, but I know them well enough to know what they’ll like. I’m making a hot chocolate for Adrian when the bell dings again.

I don’t look over until I hear a hard voice say, “Hey. V.”

I’m confused when I turn to see Derek. “Hey, Derek. You know Benji doesn’t work here anymore, right?”

“I’m not here for Benji. You’re V, right?”

I stare at him with my mouth slightly agape as I realize that Benji must have told him. Though, I guess he left out my actual name. “I…”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Derek asks. “You kissed my boyfriend.”

I don’t think it’s my imagination that silence falls around me. I don’t look where my family and Mia are standing. I can’t. I’m too busy being stuck in a nightmare. “I… I’m sorry. It was a mistake. It never should have happened.”

“You’re damn right it shouldn’t have. Benji and I? We were really great together. And you had to go ruin it!”

“Were? You broke up?” I ask. My heart drops to my stomach. I never wanted that to happen.

Derek doesn’t answer me. “I had to find out from that stupid letter you wrote him,” Derek snaps. “Do you know what that was like?”

“I only had to write him that letter because he didn’t want to see me. He switched coffee shops so that we wouldn’t have to work together anymore. I’m sorry that it happened, and I’m sorry you found out from my note but don’t take that out on Benji. I kissed him, and he stopped it because he’s with you. I know it’s not an excuse, but I’ve been confused for a while. I didn’t know for sure that I was… you know, not until I kissed him.”

“You didn’t know you were gay,” Derek says. Hearing the word is like a slap to my face. I haven’t actually said it out loud yet. It just seems like that one little word holds so much power.

“Yeah,” I admit. “He really loves you, and if you let him go, you’ll be making a big mistake. Benji’s… awesome. He’s kind and sweet and patient… you’re really lucky to have him. Don’t break up with him because of me.”

“What are you, in love with him?”

“What? No. Of course not,” I say. I can’t look at Derek when I say that, and I can feel my heart thumping erratically. I can’t even begin to unpack the strange feeling that courses through me like wildfire whenever I think of Benji. “I don’t know how I feel about him, but it doesn’t matter because he’s your boyfriend.”

“I can’t believe this. Just stay away from him,” Derek seethes before he walks out. I’m left standing there, trying to wrap my head around what just happened. It hits me all at once that I’m not alone. I look at Victoria who is standing behind the counter with me. She’s nervously looking at the ground as if she doesn’t know what to say. She’s having quite the first day.

Then I look at Mia. Her eyes are filled with tears, and she looks like her world is crumbling around her. Behind her, my family is staring at me. My dad looks horrified. He’s shaking his head as if he can’t believe what just happened. My mom looks… heartbroken. She’s crying and I think… praying? Pilar is looking at me like I’m a nasty bug intruding in her life. Somehow, Pilar hurts the most. I knew my parents weren’t going to take it well, but I didn’t think Pilar would have a problem with it.

I need to get out of here. I take off my apron. “Call Sara if you need help,” I tell Victoria before I leave. To my knowledge, no one tries to call after me or follows me.

I don’t pay attention to where I’m walking. I just try to put as much distance between me and Brasstown as possible. I send Simon a message while I walk. I hope that he’ll have some kind of magical solution for me. Just typing everything out to him actually makes me feel a little better.

Felix calls me after I’ve been walking over thirty minutes. I think it’s a first. We usually use walkie talkies, or he just comes over to talk. “Hey, I heard about what happened.”

 

~ Benji’s POV ~

I spend the rest of my weekend sulking. Derek doesn’t return any of my phone calls, but I’m not surprised. When he gets mad, there’s no getting through to him.

When I get to school on Monday, I don’t notice the whispers right away. When I do notice them, I assume that something happened at some party this past weekend and that must be the cause of the gossip. It’s not until lunch that I realize something is going on.

“Has Victor been staying with you?” I look over to see a girl. It takes me a minute to realize she’s Victor’s sister. I’ve seen her around school, and Victor has shown me pictures of her, but this is the first time I’m actually meeting her.

“Why would Victor be staying with me?” I ask.

“I don’t care if he is, you know. He just never came home after your boyfriend harassed him at the coffee shop, and he’s not in school today. I want to make sure he’s okay,” she says.

“Derek did what?” I ask. A feeling of horror is settling in me. I should have known he would have figured it out. I’ve talked about Victor. It wasn’t that much of a leap to figure out that V is Victor.

“You didn’t know?” Pilar asks.

“No, I didn’t,” I tell her. “What happened?”

“Derek went to Brasstown while Victor was working,” she starts. “He started freaking out on him because… because he kissed you. Our parents were there.” I may be furious with Victor, but right now, my heart is breaking for him. Derek, of all people, should have known better. I feel nauseated. “He didn’t deny it, you know. That he’s gay.”

“Good for him. I know how hard that can be,” I say. “Did you say he hasn’t been home?” I feel fear knot in the pit of my stomach. I remember how hard it was to be in the closet. I, at least, got to come out on my own terms. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for him to be outed the way he was.

“Not since Saturday,” she tells me. “My parents think he’s staying with a friend. They’re not worried about it.” Her face contorts with frustration and I get the idea that his parents are a whole thing right now. “Felix is his only other friend, and he hasn’t seen him.”

“Have you asked Mia?” I ask. It’s a long shot, but it’s possible that she hasn’t heard yet or that she’s forgiven him.

She shook her head. “She was at Brasstown too. I doubt Victor is her favorite person right now.”

That nauseated feeling is only growing. I can’t believe Derek would do that. “There’s still a chance,” I point out. “I’ll go with you. I’m sure she has some questions.”

It takes us a while to find Mia and then when we find her, I’m surprised to see she’s with Andrew. Pilar and I walk up to her.

“Mia,” Pilar calls. “Have you seen Victor?”

Mia frowns. “No. And I don’t want to right now,” she says angrily. She looks at me. “And I definitely don’t want to see you right now.”

“Okay, I don’t have time for this drama,” Pilar says bluntly. “Victor hasn’t been home since Saturday. Are you sure you haven’t seen him?”

“I’m sure,” Mia says. “He called me Sunday, but I didn’t answer him, and he didn’t leave a voicemail. I’d say he’s probably with his boyfriend.” She says the last word with as much condescension as she can fit in her tone.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her. “But you have to know that kiss meant nothing.”

“It’s not just about the kiss,” she says angrily. “While I was falling in love with him, he was falling with you. That kiss may have meant nothing to you, but I know him. I could see it when he talked about you. He cares about you in a way that he’s never cared about me.”

I stare at her, my mouth agape. “He talked about me?” I ask. I turn to Pilar. Why wouldn’t she tell me this?

Pilar shuffles uncomfortably. “Uh… yeah. When he defended you to Derek,” she admits. “I’m sorry we bothered you.” She pulls my arm to get me to walk.

“Pilar, what did he say about me?” I ask.

“Enough to make it really obvious that he likes you.” She looks at the ground. “And he told Derek that he’d be an idiot to walk away from you.”

 “He said that?” I ask quietly.

“He did.” A small smile crosses her face. “I really think he likes you.”

I frown. I don’t know what to think about that, so I focus on the easy part. “Mia hasn’t seen him. Are you sure Felix hasn’t?”

“You’re welcome to ask him yourself, but he said that he hasn’t seen him,” she says.

We find Felix sitting on the half-wall that encloses the outdoor eating area. He has headphones on and is swaying to a song that only he can hear.

Pilar taps on his shoulder, and he takes out his headphones. “Hey. Any word from Victor?” he asks.

“I was about to ask you that. Are you sure you haven’t heard anything from him?”

Pilar’s not really looking at him, so she misses what I see. Everyone has a tell when they lie. For Felix, his eyes get big and he looks around as if he’s looking for inspiration for what to say. “Nothing.”

“If you know where he is, you have to tell us. We’re worried about him,” I say.

“I’m sure you are,” Felix says. He looks down at his phone.

“I’m serious. I just want to help. Where is he?”

 

~ Victor’s POV ~

I try not to look openly shocked as I take in Felix’s apartment. There’s stuff… everywhere. “This is… surprising.” We walked around for nearly an hour before we came here. I thought he’d been exaggerating when he said his mom has a problem letting go of stuff.

Felix nods. “I didn’t show you this before because I was embarrassed. It’s hard to know how someone will react when I tell them about my mom,” he says. He shuffles uncomfortably. “My bedroom is a lot cleaner. We can go in there.”

I nod and follow him. His bedroom is a lot cleaner. There isn’t stuff piled up. I’m actually surprised to see how normal his bedroom looks. I sit down in the chair by his desk, and he sits down on his bed. “I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you,” I say quietly.

“It’s okay.” He looks up at the ceiling as if he’s thinking. “Part of me wants to be offended, but I get it. There are some things that are really hard to talk about. Maybe you’ve come to terms with it yourself, but you never know how someone else will take it.”

“Yeah.” I tangle my hands together. “It’s not that I didn’t trust you. I was getting ready to tell you.”

“But then Derek took matters into his own hands?” Felix guesses. “You know, I’m cool with it. You’re still my best friend. No matter what.”

“Thanks,” I say softly.

“Are you going to be okay? To go home?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I answer. “You didn’t see their faces.”

“They’re parents. They love you.”

I shake my head. “They love who they thought I was.”

“You never know if you don’t reach out,” he points out.

“Wanna bet?” I take out my phone. I press my mom’s contact and put it on speakerphone. It rings once and then goes to voicemail. “So, she’s ignoring me.”

“You don’t know that. Maybe her phone died,” Felix says.

I press my dad’s number. His rings and rings and rings. Until, “Victor.” I don’t know if it’s my imagination that his voice sounds harder than usual. I hear something in the background. They must not be home yet.

“Hey,” I say quietly. I hear my dad sigh on the other end. “I’m really sorry you found out this way.”

“I’m not talking about this.”

“Dad,” I start to say.

“No,” he cuts me off. “I don’t know what’s going on with you or why you kissed that boy, but this isn’t you.”

I stare at my phone. I’m tempted to hang up on him to avoid the inevitable argument, but part of me… wants to be me.

“This is me, Dad. I’m sorry you found out this way, but it doesn’t change that it’s true,” I say.

His next words are, “you’re not gay.”

“Yes I am. I can’t change this thing about me. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

“Well try harder.” I hear the click as he hangs up. His contact flashes on my phone before it disappears.

“I’d say my couch is open, but you’ve seen my living room,” Felix says. I think he’s trying to break the tension, but neither of us feel like laughing. He’s still staring at my phone as if he can’t believe his ears. “My floor is really comfy. You can stay as long as you need to.”

“Thanks.” I sigh. “I think they’re still out, so I’m going to go pack some clothes before they get back.”

“Do you want me to come with you?” he asks.

I shake my head. I need to do this on my own. “I’ll just be a minute.”

Sure enough, when I walk into our apartment, it’s empty. I go to my bedroom and throw some clothes in the same suitcase I used when we moved. I was supposed to give it back to my mom, but it hadn’t happened yet. It seems like my first stroke of luck in a long time. I throw my clothes haphazardly in my bag and hesitate before I grab a picture of me and my family. It was taken back in Texas before our lives fell apart, so we all look genuinely happy. I don’t know what’s about to happen, but I want to take that memory with me.

Felix and I are up all night. I can’t sleep after everything that’s happened, and Felix stays up with me. It’s weird, but I feel like we can really talk now. Sure, there are small things that we don’t know, but we got the big stuff out there. It’s nice.

A little after noon on Sunday, my phone dings. It’s a message from Simon.

“Is that your mom or dad?” Felix asks hopefully.

I shake my head. No one knows about my messages to Simon, but after everything we’ve talked about over the last 24 hours, it feels like a lie not to tell him. “Do you remember Simon Spier?”

 

~ Benji’s POV ~

Felix is adamant that he doesn’t know anything but another two days pass, and he’s still cool as a cucumber. He doesn’t seem worried about Victor at all.

On Thursday, I decide that I’m going to ask Felix again. There’s got to be something he knows, or he’d be freaking out as much as the rest of us are. Even Mia is starting to worry, and I think Victor may be her least favorite person on the planet right now.

My plans to confront Felix are derailed when Derek shows up during lunch. He’s wearing a visitor’s tag and is walking with Ms. Albright. When he sees me, he says something to her then runs towards me.

I’m frozen where I’m standing. I couldn’t move if I tried. He’s been ignoring my calls and the last thing I expected was for him to show up at school. He hated this school. After he graduated, he swore he wouldn’t come back. We’d been fighting for weeks about him coming to the dance with me in a couple of weeks.

“Benji, hey,” he says. He’s a little out of breath. He’s not the most athletically inclined person.

“Derek. What are you doing here?” I ask.

“I thought a lot about what happened between us,” he says.

“Was this before or after you went and outed Victor to his family and girlfriend?” I ask.

“What are you talking about?” Derek asks. He looks genuinely clueless.

“When you went to confront Victor? His family was in the coffee shop.”

I watch as Derek’s expression shifts from clueless to horrified. “I didn’t know that.”

“Of course, you didn’t,” I say. I realize a little too late that my voice carries and we’re starting to attract attention. “Because you never stopped to think about whether you were hurting him. You were only thinking of yourself. Just like always.”

“That’s not fair,” Derek argues.

“I think there’s a lot of that going around,” I mutter.

“I don’t want to fight with you. I miss you,” Derek says.

“I’ve missed you too,” I admit.

“I was thinking that maybe I overreacted.” Derek looks down at the ground. “You didn’t ask him to kiss you, and it seems like you did the right thing and stopped him. I wish you had told me, but I can deal with that. I’m here, at a school that I never wanted to come back to, to ask if you’ll give us another chance. What do you say?”

I don’t realize it until that exact moment, but I don’t want to get back together with Derek. We’ve been broken from the very beginning. I deserve to start over with someone new. Someone like… “I need to find Felix.”

“What does that mean?” he asks.

“It means… something has been wrong with us for a very long time. This thing with Victor wasn’t the catalyst to our relationship ending; it was just the final straw,” I tell him. “I deserve… we both deserve to be with someone that makes us happy and makes us feel comfortable to be ourselves. You’re not that person for me and if we’re being honest, I don’t think I’m that person for you. I’m sorry, Derek.”

I walk away from him. With every step, I feel a little lighter. Pilar comes up to me as I’m walking. “Are you okay?” she asks.

“Yeah, I am,” I say. I think I sound surprised, but I’m not sure. “Have you seen Felix?” I spin around trying to spot him.

“Why are you trying to find Felix?” she asks.

“He has to know where Victor is. Everyone else, we’ve been trying to find him, but he’s not.”

“What are you going to do when you find Victor?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I tell her honestly. “I just know that I need to make sure he’s okay and we need to talk about this.”

“There he is,” Pilar says. She’s pointing at a picnic table where Felix is sitting by himself.

We walk over to him. “Before you say you don’t know where he is, you should know that I know that you know,” I say as I sit down across from him. I’m not even sure if that makes sense because I lost track of what I was saying while I was talking.

Felix looks at me cluelessly. “What?” he asks.

“Where’s Victor?” I study Felix, looking for any indication that maybe I’m wrong, but he has guilt written all over his face.

“I don’t know.” Felix looks down at the table.

“I’m one of the few people that can say that I know a little bit about what he’s going through. Let me help him. Has he been staying with you? Please, tell us the truth,” I plead.

“He was with me until Monday,” Felix finally says. “After his dad told him that he needed to try harder not to be gay, he didn’t feel like he could go home.”

“Where did he go on Monday?” I ask.

“Hold up. He talked to our dad?” Pilar asks.

“Yeah, he called him. No offense, but your dad was a dick. Victor called both your parents Monday before he left as well, but they didn’t answer him,” Felix explains.

Pilar looks shocked. “You didn’t know?” I ask. She shakes her head. “I’m sorry.” I turn back to Felix. “Where did he go on Monday?”

“He’s in… New York,” Felix answers nervously. “He’s been messaging with this kid named Simon and when he told him about everything that’s been happening, Simon invited him to visit. Victor thought getting away from here might be good for him.”

“Simon Spier?” I confirm. The odds of it being a different Simon are slim to none, but I still need the confirmation. Felix nods.

Pilar nudges me. “So?” she asks.

“What?”

“Are you gonna go after him?” she asks.

“That would be crazy. This isn’t some romcom where the guy gets the guy,” I point out.

“Why not? What if the only thing that separates real life from the romcoms is the people that say it can’t happen?” Pilar is looking at me intensely. She’s making me feel like it’s possible.

“How is he supposed to go after him? I don’t know where Simon lives, and I doubt Victor will tell me,” Felix points out.

“No, but I know someone who will,” I admit.

I don’t provide more information, but they follow me as I walk to the library. I take a seat across from someone who’s buried behind a stack of cooking books.

“Hey, Nora.”

 

 ~ Victor’s POV ~

“Victor!” I hear someone calling my name, but the sheer number of people surrounding me is overwhelming. Fortunately, Simon comes to my rescue. “Hey, Victor! It’s so great to meet you.” It’s impossible not to return his smile. Simon quickly hugs me. “This is my boyfriend, Bram.”

“It’s so nice to meet you!” A guy that I recognize from Simon’s Instagram kisses my cheek.

“Whoa,” I say, taking a step back.

“It’s cool. It’s New York. No one gives a shit,” Bram says. As if to prove a point, he kisses Simon, like a real kiss. He’s right; no one blinks an eye.

“Come on. We’ll take you back to our place,” Simon says.

He and Bram are so cute together. They’re everything I’ve dreamt having a boyfriend would be like. They hold hands as we walk through the streets of New York; Bram teases Simon as they climb the stairs to their apartment; Simon looks at Bram as if he’s the center of his universe. Just watching them gives me hope.

I’m taken aback when we walk in their apartment and there are three people huddled together on a couch by a window. I’m a little nervous that we walked in the wrong apartment, but Bram used his key to get in, so that wouldn’t make sense.

“Who are these people?” I ask.

“These are our roommates,” Simon explains. “We couldn’t afford an apartment in Brooklyn on our own.”

“I’m Justin, with a soft J.” This kid with short blonde hair and the brightest sweater I’ve ever seen shakes my hand.

“I’m Ivy.”

“And I’m Kim. And before you ask, my pronouns are they, them, theirs.”

“Nice to meet… they,” I say uncertainly. I’ve read that pronouns are a thing, but I’ve never known anyone that used different pronouns. Everyone laughs, so I guess I haven’t said the completely wrong thing.

“So, what’s your deal?” Ivy asks.

“My deal?” I echo.

“Yeah,” she says.

I look at Simon and my terror must be obvious because he comes to my rescue. “I told you. Victor’s from our hometown. He’s visiting us.”

I let out a sigh of relief. It should be so easy to tell them “my deal”. They don’t know me and the chances of me seeing them again are slim, but I can’t do it.

“You can put your stuff in our room,” Simon says.

I follow him through the beads to a small bedroom. I see a picture of Bram kissing Simon’s cheek on top of their dresser and soak in the rest of the room. There’s fabric in one corner, blueish green curtains that are currently open and reveal white, sheer curtains underneath. There’s a mismatch of pictures on the wall. Bram closes the door behind him.

“You okay? You look a little overwhelmed,” Simon says.

“Yeah. I know I said I wanted to come here to experience what it would be like to be out, but it’s all so…”

“Gay?” Bram guesses. I nod. “When we first moved here for school, we felt that way. It took us a while to unlearn what was normal in Georgia and to learn that… there’s no one way to be gay. We found our new normal here.”

Simon nods. “You don’t really get to see that in Atlanta,” he agrees.

“Well, I hope to see some of that while I’m here.”

My first two days in the city are a whirlwind of experiences. It’s almost like a culture shock. Aside from the people, the sheer quantity of specialty stores and eateries is overwhelming. Did you know there’s this bakery that will deliver warm cookies to you, no matter the time of day? And there’s an entire store dedicated to m&ms.

Bram’s in class almost all day on Wednesday, but Simon and I go into Manhattan. We do all the touristy things I never knew I wanted to do.

On Thursday, while we’re eating breakfast, an alarm goes off on Bram’s phone. “Do you have to get to class?” I ask uncertainly.

“No,” Bram says. “I don’t have class on Thursdays.”

“Yeah, he piled all of his classes into two days. Pro – he has five days off. Con – he’s impossible to find on Mondays and Wednesdays,” Simon explains. “He’s actually going to play some basketball. I was going to go watch, but I can hang back here if you don’t want to go.”

“No, I’d love to come.” I mean it, and not just because I’m terrified to be alone with their roommates. I’m sure they’re great people, but their comfort with themselves is intimidating.

Simon puts on his jacket. “No. I can’t in good conscience let you wear that,” Bram says.

“It’s a good jacket,” Simon points out.

“How is someone who has such terrible taste a fashion major?” Bram asks. I look at Simon. I never would have taken him for a fashion major.

“The goal is to do wardrobe for movies,” Simon explains to me. “I have great taste.”

Bram rolls his eyes. “One day your jacket is just going to disappear.”

Simon shrugs. “We’ll see. Ready?”

The place where Bram plays basketball is only a five-minute walk from the apartment. The people he plays with are huge.

I don’t play at first. I sit on the bench with Simon but realize that he’s not a particularly good conversationalist when his attention is divided. I don’t totally blame him. I think if I had a boyfriend that was playing, I wouldn’t be able to take my eyes off of him either. It’s actually kind of funny to watch.

When Bram takes a quick break for water, he walks over to us. “You wanna join us?”

“Really?” I ask hopefully.

“Yeah. I could use someone on my side that knows what he’s doing. Soccer is really my sport. I’m crap at basketball.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to say anything,” I tease.

“Ooh,” Bram says. “You think you’re tough stuff. Come on.”

I join him, and it’s honestly so much fun. We get our butts kicked, but it feels good to run around the court. I even make a basket – something that Bram is repeatedly teased for never having accomplished.

For a little while, it’s like nothing else exists. I can forget about the craziness waiting for me in Atlanta. I can just breathe and play some basketball. Or lose my breath, if I’m being honest. These guys are so good.

When we finish, we rejoin Simon. “So, what did you think?” Bram asks.

“That was embarrassing. At Creekwood, I’m considered good,” I tell him.

“Oh, I know. They’re crazy good. Jason,” he points at one of the players. “Was in the NBA. He was the first openly gay player.”

“He’s gay?” I ask surprised.

“They all are. I play in a gay league,” Bram tells me. I look back at the group of men that I just spent the last hour playing basketball with. I never would have guessed. “There’s not one way to be gay. You can be femme, butch, athletic.” He looks at Simon. “Painfully unathletic.”

“Hey,” Simon says indignantly.

Bram laughs. “You know I love you.”

Simon grins. “Not as much as I love you.”

Just as they kiss, Darius walks towards us. I feel like a bit of a peeping tom watching them, but it’s all so new to me. They don’t look nervous at all to be kissing in public in broad daylight. “Nauseating, isn’t it? They’re always like this.”

“But it’s okay because they’re in loooooooooooove,” Jeff teases. He hits Bram with his towel. Bram and Simon break apart, and Bram flips him off. “Have you heard their story? It was a perfect storybook romance.”

“Speaking of love,” Bram says. “I hear there are wedding bells on the horizon. Danny is finally getting you to settle down?”

Jeff grins. “Yeah. And if you keep that up, you’re not invited. Simon can bring the newbie.”

“I’m suddenly feeling so replaced.” Bram puts his hand over his heart and pretends to be offended.

We linger a little longer before we head back to their apartment. “You know, Simon and I almost didn’t happen,” Bram says quietly while we’re walking.

“What?” I ask surprised. I’ve stalked Simon’s Instagram. I can’t imagine what it would look like without Bram.

“I know Jeff called our relationship perfect, but you need to know that it didn’t start out that way. It was messy and rocky. I used to be so scared of who I was. When we started talking, I wouldn’t tell him who I was. We went by nicknames. When he got outed, I was terrified. All of a sudden, our emails had been posted to creeksecrets by this asshole. There were people emailing me. Some were telling me to go to hell; some said they supported me; some told me I shouldn’t hide my identity. So, I deactivated my email.” Simon’s grip on Bram tightens noticeably. “I turned my back on Simon when he needed me the most.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask.

“Because I know what it’s like to be afraid. And I know it’s only when I stopped being scared of who I was that I got my great love story. Victor, this is your third day in the city, and we haven’t heard you talk about how you’re gay or any of the stuff you’re going through. I know how hard it is at the beginning. If you’re going to take away anything from your time with us, make it that. You have… an undetermined amount of time with us, and you don’t have to be afraid. We would love to accept you.”

Simon adds, “and we have an apartment that is literally filled…”

“Figuratively,” Bram corrects.

Simon jokingly glares at him. “Literally filled with super gay roommates that would love nothing more than to be there for you.”

“I know, but they don’t know me, and I don’t know them. It was hard enough to open up to you, Simon, but to tell a group of strangers?”

Bram looks at Simon, who shuffles uncomfortably. “I have to tell you something,” Simon says. “They do know you.”

“What do you mean?” I ask. I stop walking and earn myself a really nasty look from this guy that almost walks into me.

“Let’s get some coffee,” Bram says. “We’ll tell you everything.”

We end up at this tiny coffee shop that Simon calls one of the hidden treasures of the city. He’s not wrong. It’s really comfy inside.

Once we’re sitting down, sipping at our coffees, Simon begins to explain, “what you need to know is when you reached out to me, I was flattered… and scared. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing or give you bad advice. Like you said, we’re not the same. Bram had girlfriends before we got together. One of our roommates had really religious parents. And another one of our roommates was able to explain exactly what an Impossible Burger was.” Simon frowns and looks at the table. “When I needed advice, I would ask them.”

“You’ve just been sitting around, laughing about my messed-up life?” I ask. I can’t believe this. “I trusted you.”

“We weren’t laughing,” Simon says. “We were all rooting for you. Each one of them had something that they could contribute to help you.”

“But why? They didn’t even know me. Why would they want to help a complete stranger?” I ask.

“We were all complete strangers to each other at some point,” Simon points out. “The thing that brought us all together was that we knew that we could understand each other in a different way than someone that isn’t gay. Even if I don’t have religious parents and even if Bram was my first kiss, we are united in the sense that we know what it’s like to be afraid of ourselves. We’re a family and you’ve become a part of that family as well.”

“So, they know everything. They know I’m into guys, and about Mia, and about Benji,” I say.

“Yeah. I didn’t tell them what happened on Saturday. Well, I told Bram.” That doesn’t surprise me. They tell each other everything. Literally. Everything. “Once you agreed to come, I figured you could share that when you were comfortable.”

“They may not have had the chance to get to know you in person, but we all love you, Victor,” Bram says.

I take a sip from my coffee and close my eyes. It’s a lot to wrap my head around, but it’s impossible to doubt that Simon had the best of intentions. And it’s almost a relief to know that they already know.

When we walk back to their apartment, I feel the pressure hit me. I haven’t actually said the words out loud yet and if I’m going to take Bram’s advice and be brave, I know it’s time to say them.

 

~ Benji’s POV ~

I used to know Nora pretty well. She’s a little younger than me, but we used to do some rec programs together and we got along pretty well. As we got older, we just kind of grew apart. She got really involved with her cooking and I started drinking to avoid my reality.

“Benji,” she says surprised.

“This is Pilar and Felix,” I tell her.

“I recognize you. You moved here a few months ago, right?” Nora asks as she looks at Pilar. Pilar nods. She clearly doesn’t recognize Nora, but Nora doesn’t look offended.

“How are you doing?” I ask.

She shrugs. “Can’t really complain.” I sit there uncomfortably for a minute. “Did you need something?”

“Actually, yes. Did you hear about Victor Salazar?” Nora purses her lips and nods. “Did you know that he’s been talking to your brother?”

“No, but it doesn’t surprise me,” she says. “They were both outed in their own ways. I’m sure he felt that Simon could understand him.”

“Probably,” I agree. “I know we haven’t talked in a while, but I really need a favor. Victor is staying with Simon, and I really need to go see him. Can you give me Simon’s address?”

“You know Simon lives in New York, right?” she confirms.

“Yeah. And that’s where Victor is.”

“Why don’t you ask him for Simon’s address?” she questions.

I sigh. I should have known this wouldn’t be that easy. “He’s not answering my phone calls. I think he thinks I’m mad at him for kissing me. I don’t know, but I do know I need to talk to him.” Nora looks torn. “Please. Your brother got his great love story. Help me get mine.”

“You love Victor,” she says. Her face lights up like Christmas came early, and Pilar’s grip on my shoulder tightens.

“I wish I could give you an answer, but I really don’t know. I’d love the chance to find out, though,” I tell her.

“Felix here,” Felix says as he crouches down next to Nora. “I’m Victor’s best friend and I can confirm that he really likes Benji. He just thinks that he’s ruined everything, so he’s avoiding him.”

“Okay, I’ll tell you. But I’m going to give Simon a heads up,” she warns me.

“Of course. Let him know.”

She pulls out her phone and sends a text, probably to Simon. She fumbles through her bag to find a piece of paper and a pen. When she finishes writing down his address, I thank her profusely.

“I can’t believe this is happening. You’re actually going to go to New York?” Felix asks.

“Do you think it’s too much?” I ask nervously.

“Yes, of course. But you should do it. Victor’s going to love it,” he assures me.

I really hope so. I’m really distracted at work that night. I tell my new boss that it’s because I have a family thing going on and that I need the weekend off. She’s not happy about it, but she doesn’t put up a fight about it, which is nice. Sara would have. 

All I can think about is Victor.

I try to plan what I am going to say when I see him, but everything either sounds too cheesy or too unemotional. I don’t know if I should tell him that I like him or if that’s going to be a conversation for another day.

I’m let out of work early. It’s a slow night and it makes sense for me to be the one that leaves because I’m messing up every order. I go straight to the bus stop from work. It’s expensive, but I remind myself that it will be worth it because I’ll be in New York soon.

A 22-hour bus ride is no joke. I’ve never been able to sleep in moving vehicles, and this is no exception. Despite my exhaustion, I can’t fall asleep. Most of the people around me soundly sleep through the night. I hate them.

It’s late when I get off the bus. We hit some traffic, so what was supposed to be a 22-hour trip lasted a little over 24. I’m hoping that they’re home and not out for dinner or something.

I stop at a coffee shop with such good coffee, it makes Brasstown look like it sells flavored water. The more time I spend in New York, the more alive I feel.

As I make my way to Simon’s building, I resign myself to the fact that I cannot control Victor’s reaction. I can only make sure that I’m honest with him. I hope that’s enough.

 

~ Victor’s POV ~

Ivy gets back from her class at the same time that we get back, so everyone’s home. Kim is taking a class this semester that has something to do with makeup in film, so they’re currently giving Justin a very realistic black eye.

“How was basketball?” They ask.

“It was really great,” Bram says. “Victor played. They all loved him, of course.”

“Of course,” Justin agrees.

“Of course?” I ask.

“Girl, have you looked in a mirror lately?” Justin asks. The first couple of times he called me girl, I felt really uncomfortable. I guess after three days, you can really get used to things like that. “You’re adorable.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I say slowly.

“Case in point,” Justin says as he motions towards me with his hand. “Do I look rugged and handsome with my black eye?” he asks.

“Stop moving so I can take my picture.” Kim snaps a picture and then hands him a wipe to take off the makeup. “Thank you. I just have to turn you into a zombie. I’ll do your makeup for real tomorrow before we go to Messy Boots.” They’ve been talking about Messy Boots all week. I’d avoided committing to going up to this point. I feel like it will be a lot for me, but I’m gonna give it a shot.

“Yes please. I’ve been eying your blue eyeshadow for a while,” Justin says excitedly.

“Victor, honey. If you’re still here tomorrow, you have to let me do yours. A little eyeliner and you’ll look fierce,” Kim says.

My instinct is to decline immediately, but I manage to swallow that. This week is about trying new things. At least if I hate it, I’ll know. I manage an uncomfortable nod.

I think Kim expected me to say no, so they turn slowly to look at me with a huge smile on their face. “Great.”

I watch, slightly mesmerized as they work on Justin. “Why do so many gay people wear makeup and dress in drag?” I ask curiously. “Is it, like, fun to be a character? Be someone that you’re not?” Five pairs of eyes find me, and I instantly feel like I said something wrong. “You know what? Sorry. Never mind.”

“No, it’s okay. It’s better to ask than to make the wrong assumption and accept it as truth,” Kim tells me. I’m not sure they believe that though because their mouth is in a tight line, and they look disgruntled.

Justin stands up and pulls out his phone. He’s a strange sight in the early stages of being zombified. “This was me three years ago.” I look at the photo and look back at him and look back at the photo. In the picture, he’s dressed like he’s going on an interview and is wearing an uncomfortable smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. It’s hard to reconcile the picture with the happy, goofy kid I’ve gotten to know over the last few days. “I would put on this gorgeous ensemble and try to convince my neighbors to join a religion that I knew wanted nothing to do with me. These were dark days. This person you see in the picture? That was me being in character. That was drag. When I wear makeup now? It’s so I can be… me.” He looks back down at the picture.

“I get it,” I tell him. “My parents are really religious too. Not like yours, but… I think it’s part of the reason…” my words get caught in my throat and I need to take several deep breaths to calm myself down. “It’s part of the reason that when they found out I…” why is this so hard? Justin opened up about a really difficult part of his life. I look behind me at Simon and Bram. Simon smiles at me in encouragement. “It’s part of the reason they couldn’t accept me when they found out I’m gay.” I expect to feel anxious, like I’m going to explode, but I feel remarkably calm. “I kissed this kid who had a boyfriend and his boyfriend confronted me while I was at work. My family heard him. My dad told me to try harder to stop being gay. They’re still ignoring me.”

Justin puts his hand on my shoulder. “My parents disowned me when they found out. At first, I didn’t think I could move past it. And part of me will always feel sad for the family I lost, but the family I’ve made has the most accepting and loving people in the world. They got me through my dark times. They’ll get you through yours as well.”

He hugs me and I feel myself clinging to him like a lifeline. I begin to cry when Bram and Simon join the hug. Then Ivy and Kim join us.

I don’t know how long we stand like that, but I wish I could bottle this moment and live in it forever because in this moment, my life is perfectly imperfect.

We end up staying up almost all night, drinking hot chocolate, eating those magically warm cookies that are delivered right to their door, and talking. I tell them more about me and they open up to me as well. I’ve never been someone that cries a lot, but my tear ducts are tested over and over again. When everyone goes to sleep, I feel mentally and physically exhausted.

When I wake up on Friday, I try calling my parents again. No answer. I start to leave them the same voicemail I’ve left them every day, but I stop after I get out, “I’m safe.” There’s something else I want to say today. “I’m not ashamed of myself. I’m not ashamed to be gay. I’m sorry if you are.”

Kim has class at 8:00 on a Friday, which they say was the worst decision of their existence as they stumble around the apartment like a zombie in an attempt to wake up. They have to leave a little after 7 because they need to get on a bus to get to class.

Bram wakes up a couple of hours after Kim leaves. “Do you like pancakes? What am I saying? Everyone likes pancakes,” he says. He makes himself a cup of coffee and starts preparing the batter.

“Do you need help?” I ask.

“I’m okay. The only way to get Simon out of bed on the weekend is to bribe him with breakfast, so I’m used to this as a solo activity,” Bram explains.

“But it’s Friday morning. Not exactly the weekend,” I point out.

“He doesn’t have class on Friday, so it’s the weekend for him. Trust me, it’s a whole thing.” Bram has this little, affectionate smile on his face.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course,” Bram says.

“How did you know that Simon was the one?” I ask.

Bram looks deep in thought while he measures out the pancake batter and pours it onto the pan. “How much of our story do you know?” Bram asks.

“Everything you told me yesterday. And that he made a huge declaration of love on creeksecrets, you showed up at the Ferris wheel, and you shared your first kiss with him while the whole school cheered for you.”

He nods. “Simon rode that Ferris wheel all night. I was there, but I couldn’t bring myself to join him. Then, when he was told it would be his last ride, I saw his face.” Bram gets this far off look in his eyes. “I knew in that moment; I didn’t want to let him down. And I knew I could be as strong as I needed to be for him. That’s when I knew. When I realized that he was more important than my fear and that he made me brave.”

“And we’ll live happily ever after,” Simon adds. “Do I smell pancakes?” He kisses Bram and steals a sip of his coffee. “Morning.”

“Do you want to wake Ivy and Justin?” Bram asks. “These will be ready soon. Kim should be back any minute.”

“I’ll wake Ivy, but I’m not going near Justin. I enjoy living,” Simon points out.

“I can go wake him up,” I offer.

“Look at that. A gentleman.” Bram pointedly looks at Simon.

“No. I can’t let you do that. You’re too young. Too full of life,” Simon says dramatically.

“Keep that up Spier. See how it works out for you.” Justin is walking around with his eyes mostly closed. Bram passes him a mug filled with coffee. “You’re my hero.”

“Watch it,” Simon teases.

It’s so nice to sit around and have a meal with these people. It’s just like having breakfast with my family… pre-Texas move. I wish I didn’t have to go back to Atlanta. For a brief moment, it feels possible. I can actually see it. I can see myself waking up to these people every day and living in this magical world of acceptance, but it’s a short-lived moment. It’s not possible for me. Maybe, after I graduate from high school, I can move here and make my own little family, just like Simon and Bram did.

Kim starts to do our make up around 6. They start with me because they say I’ll be the easiest to get done. They use this silver eyeliner that causes Justin to fake catcall me. I’m surprised when I don’t hate it.

“You’re gonna be breaking hearts tonight,” Ivy tells me.

I grin. I doubt it, but I’ll take the compliment. Kim spends over an hour on Ivy and then gets started on Justin.

When they are working on Justin, there’s a knock at the door. Simon jumps to his feet and opens the door. “Victor, I think there’s somebody here to see you.”

I slowly stand up when I see Benji in the doorway. “Hi, Victor,” he says quietly.

 

~ Benji’s POV ~

Victor is staring at me shocked. “Benji, what are you doing here?” he asks.

This is a bad idea. I shouldn’t have done this. I know I can’t just turn around and leave. That would be weird. But is it weirder than this silence?

“Hello?” he says. He waves his hands in front of my face, effectively pulling me from my thoughts.

“I came to see you,” I tell him. Simon waves me inside. I recognize him from the pictures. I feel like I’m meeting a legend. It surprises me that he looks so ordinary. I guess part of me was expecting some gay god.

Simon doesn’t look surprised to see me, so I know he got Nora’s message. He shuts the door behind me. In the back of my head, I register that there are a lot of people here.

“Why would you come to see me?” Victor asks. He is apparently unphased by the number of people crammed into the living room. Something looks different about him. I can’t quite put my finger on it. At first, I think it’s the eyeliner, but it’s something else. Something much deeper.

“I wanted to talk to you. I’m really sorry about Derek. What he did was really shitty,” I tell him.

He shrugs. “It’s fine.”

“No, it’s not. We broke up,” I say slowly.

“Benji, I’m so sorry. I never wanted to come between you two,” he says. He looks genuinely upset.

“You don’t understand. I broke up with him.” I really hope it’s not my imagination that there’s a spark of hope in Victor’s expression.

“Why? You guys were great together,” he tells me.

“No, we weren’t. We haven’t been for a long time. What he did last weekend made me realize how bad he makes me feel about myself, and how much I’m afraid to share with him. I want to be with someone that makes me happy and that encourages me to be myself,” I explain. “I want to be with someone that I can talk to about anything without feeling judged.”

“Oh cool,” he says with a nod. I feel my heart sinking.

“You’re going to have to be more specific, girl,” this kid sitting in a spinning chair tells me. “He’s very oblivious.”

“Yeah. We went for coffee yesterday, and this cute barista was totally hitting on him,” Simon tells me.

“Cute?” another kid asks indignantly. I’m guessing that’s Simon’s boyfriend. I wonder if he’s the same kid from the post. I have trouble believing that; it seems too perfect to work out like that, but Pilar’s words come back to me. Maybe they went for it, so they’re getting their romcom ending. I don’t know. Part of me wants to be skeptical, but at my core, I am a hopeless romantic.

Victor looks around at everyone. “What did I just miss?”

I have to bite my lip to keep my laughter from escaping. “I’m talking about you, Victor. You make me happy; you make me feel like I can just be myself.”

“Why me?” he asks. He looks shocked but not upset, so I take that as a win.

“Maybe it’s because you’re so easy to talk to or because I told you about the worst moment of my life, and you made me feel like it was going to be okay. Maybe it’s because you laughed with me instead of at me when I made some terrible foam art or because baby shark is your most listened to song. Or because when me and Derek broke up, you made me realize I deserved better.”

“I am really sorry that you guys broke up,” he says again.

“I’m not.” When I bring my hand up hesitantly to the side of his cheek, he tilts his head slightly and I go in for the kiss.

It’s so different from our first kiss. Our first kiss was immediately marred by the fact that I was dating Derek. Now? It’s guilt free, and it feels great. I didn’t know that kissing Victor could feel this good.

When we break apart, I’m aware of the cheering happening around us. “Wow,” Victor says. “That was surprising.”

“Wow,” I agree. “Wait. Good surprising or bad surprising?”

“Good surprising. Definitely good surprising.” Victor closes his eyes and I figure out what the difference is. Victor used to carry all of his fear and his secrecy in his face. I’ve never seen him with his guard down. It’s obviously down now. He looks so at peace. Someone coughs.

“Are you going to introduce us?” I’m grateful that guy points it out because I need to learn their names.

“Oh. Everyone this is Benji… Benji, that’s Simon. Bram. Ivy. Justin. Kim.” He points at everyone around the room, but once he says their names, they’re lost on me.

“Hey,” I say. “Good to meet you all.”

I feel this intense scrutiny as they all stare at me. I don’t know what they’re looking for, but it makes me uncomfortable. Thank God for Victor. “I can’t believe you came all the way to New York for me.”

“Yeah, well. You didn’t answer my phone call, and Pilar was worried,” I tell him.

I see the slightest change to his expression. “Why would she care?” he asks.

“Because she’s your sister, and she loves you,” I suggest.

“You didn’t see her that day in Brasstown.” He shakes his head. “She wants nothing to do with me.”

“You’re right that I didn’t see her that day, but I have seen her at school every day this week,” I argue. “She misses you and wants to know you’re safe.”

He looks like he can’t believe his ears. “So, you came here for Pilar?” he asks.

“No. I came here for you.”

The smile that spreads across his face has my heart beating erratically. I don’t know how I went this long without realizing that I have feelings for him. “Okay new kid.” It takes me a minute to realize the girl standing in the archway by the kitchen is talking to me.

“Benji,” I say.

“Right, new kid.” This girl is really short, but I’m getting the vibe from her that she should never be messed with. “Tell us, why should Victor forgive you?” The question surprises me because I don’t think I did anything wrong.

Victor’s expression goes from blissfully loopy to mortified in less than a second. “Ivy,” he says.

“No. You made a mistake. Who hasn’t been there while questioning?” Ivy turns back to me. “You know what it’s like to be scared of yourself. Victor wouldn’t tell us everything, but he told us you had a rough time before coming out. You could have shown him some compassion. You could have told him that everyone does stupid things when they’re figuring out who they like. Instead, you cast him aside, so when he was outed, he felt like he had no one.”

“You’re right. I feel this connection with him,” I explain. “And if I’m being honest, I have since we met that day in the hallway, and he was wearing these awesome vintage Nike Cortezes. Then he interviewed at the coffee shop I worked at and spilt the latte milk all over me, and I found it endearing. That’s part of the reason I got so upset when he kissed me.” It starts to feel weird that I’m talking about him instead of to him, so I turn to look at him. “I had a boyfriend and things weren’t perfect, but I didn’t think they could be better. But then I felt something when you kissed me, and it was terrifying. I didn’t want that complication, so I avoided having to deal with it. I’m sorry, but I’m here now.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” he tells me. “Seriously. If you hadn’t, I may never have found my way here.” He looks at Ivy. “I may never have seen this whole life that’s waiting for me outside of high school, and I may never have met some of the greatest people that this world has to offer. I kissed you because I needed to know who I was. Turns out, I found that here.”

“Oh, Victor.” The guy in the chair, whose name is evading me right now, dabs at his eyes. “Ivy, cut him a break. As far as apologies go, I think traveling like 2000 miles is a pretty good start.”

“It’s actually like 850 miles,” I correct. He raises his eyebrows at me. “You’re right, not the point.”

“Yeah. You must really love our Victor.”

I feel myself blushing, and I’m really hoping that Victor will remain oblivious to it. I am not ready to call this love, and I’m certainly not ready to call it love in front of an apartment full of people I don’t know.

I’m saved by Simon’s boyfriend. I really hope they mention names again. “Okay, okay. leave him alone. We’re all going to Messy Boots tonight. You in?”

“What’s Messy Boots?” I ask.

“It’s this amazing gay club,” Simon explains. “On Fridays and Saturdays, they do this drag show where they pull people from the audience onto the stage.”

“Oh… I’m not 21,” I say.

“You don’t need to be. They let everyone in,” Simon assures me. He doesn’t clarify if they’re supposed to let everyone in or if they’re just very lax with checking to see if people are of age.

Victor looks at me with his puppy dog eyes. Seriously, how is it possible that this kid isn’t handed everything that life has to offer? “Please.”

“I’m in,” I say.

 

~ Victor’s POV ~

I’m instantly overwhelmed when we walk in. They lead me to the bar that is staffed by a bunch of really fit guys in overalls. “Oh, I feel like it’s our baby’s first gay club,” Bram says excitedly.

I laugh. He and Simon have, weirdly, become something like parental figures in my life, so he’s not that far off.

“Everyone here is gay?” I ask. I know my eyes are wide as I look around. Benji is actually speechless. It’s a good look on him.

“Oh yeah,” Justin says. I snort to try to cover my laugh because the way he says it sounds like the Kool Aid man, and it is so unexpected. “Just a ginger ale for my two friends here. They’re drunk enough on boys right now.”

“Like you’re one to talk,” Bram scoffs.

We get our drinks in these little blue cups and sit at the bar for a few minutes. Eventually Bram lures Simon out to the dance floor. Then Ivy, Kim, and Justin find them and they’re jumping all over the dance floor.

I don’t know if I should ask Benji if he wants to dance or if I should wait for him to ask me. Instead of figuring it out, I sit there sipping my ginger ale.

This guy sits next to me. “Yo, I’m Mike.” He gives me a head nod.

“Hey. Nice to meet you,” I say.

Benji puts his arm over my shoulder. “Yeah. Really nice to meet you.”

Mike leaves the bar with a slightly frustrated look on his facce, and I look at Benji curiously. “What was that?”

“You realize he was about to hit on you, right?” Benji asks.

“He was?” I did not pick up on that at all.

Benji smiles and holds out his hand. I only hesitate a minute before I take it. I expect everyone to stare, but no one does. Here, this is normal. I think I could get used to this. “Come on. Let’s go dance,” he says.

I follow him onto the dance floor. Bram and Justin let out a long “whoo” when they see us. I can’t even explain the feeling that comes over me while we’re dancing. It’s like my world is moving in slow motion, yet time is inexplicably flying by.

Dancing with Benji is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Between our jokes about rump shaking that have Ivy and Kim looking at us like we’re crazy (Justin jumps right on board with it), or this fun competitive edge that kind of took over us as we danced. Part of me wishes that I could be braver. We look like we could just be friends and I want to get closer to him, maybe dance a little like Simon and Bram are dancing. The idea makes me feel self-conscious, and I don’t know why. This is a night of freedom. Why am I holding myself back?

When it’s almost midnight, the music slows a little and everyone in the club seems to gather around the stage. Katya, the host of the evening comes out and looks around the club. Katya is apparently one of their favorite hosts – she does it a few times a month. Bram had warned me that her job was to make fun of the audience, so I’m not surprised when the first words out of her mouth are, “Welcome to Messy Boots! I just have to say – this is the sorriest looking crowd I have ever seen. Except for you. I haven’t seen you around here before.” I don’t realize she’s pointing at me until Benji nudges me. “Get your cute butt up here.”

I look around, hoping that someone else will walk towards the stage. No luck.

I nervously climb the steps to the stage and stand next to her. “What’s your name sweetie?”

“Victor?” I say it like it’s a question, but it’s just because there are, like, a hundred people staring at me.

“Where are you from Victor?” she asks.

“Atlanta,” I answer.

“Ooh, a Georgia peach,” she says in what is her take on a southern accent. There’s scattered laughter and cheering. “What brings you to New York, honey?”

I look at Simon, Bram, Justin, Ivy, and Kim. They all look so proud of me. I feel so warm and full of love. “I’m here visiting family.” I can see Justin tearing up, and I clear my throat because I’m not crying on stage in front of all these people.

“And how has that been going for you?” she asks.

“It’s been great. I really found myself this week.” I look at Benji who is looking at me like I’m precious. Benji, who jumped on a bus and made the 22-hour drive so he could talk to me. Benji, who apologized even though he had nothing to apologize for. Benji, who always knows how to make me laugh and has always been there for me. “I learned how to be brave this week. It’s been the best week of my life,” I answer honestly. “There’s something I have to do.”

The cheers and clapping still follow me long after I’ve rejoined my friends. It’s so strange to think that less than a week ago, I didn’t know most of them, and I’d felt so alone. They hug me and tell me I’m their family too, but I’m looking for Benji. Bram seems to understand. “Let him go,” he whispers to Ivy.

I walk over to Benji. “You were great up there,” he says.

“Thanks,” I say before I lean in and kiss him. I feel a little self-conscious at first, but with Benji, there’s little room to feel anything except the kiss. I think about what Bram said, about how Simon made him feel brave. That’s how I feel with Benji. There’s thunderous applause around us and I feel like I may combust from all the things I’m feeling. Relief and love and joy and acceptance and like Benji’s kiss is the air that fills my lungs.

I’d thought I’d experienced the perfect moment when I came out to Simon’s roommates, but I was wrong. This is the perfect moment.