Chapter Seven

Party Surprises

"This is a nightmare," I said with a sigh as I stood with Leo in line to get my class schedule. Registration wasn't something I was having any fun with and Leo didn't look like he was having much more fun. We'd been in line for over an hour and it wasn't moving fast.

"Think we'll be here all day?" he asked, looking around at the crowd of students.

"Probably," I sighed again.

"Great way to spend a Friday," sighed Leo as he put his head down.

"The lines are moving again," said a familiar voice and turned to face Tyler Becket.

"Hey!" I said, smiling. "I was hoping I'd run into you here."

"Yeah," smiled Tyler. "I was actually looking for you. Took me a while but I found you."

"Tyler, this is my friend Leo," I said, introducing them. "Leo, this is Tyler Becket."

"Nice to meet you," said Tyler. "You guys been in line long?"

"Oh just an hour or so," I laughed. "Not real long when you think about it."

"Long enough to make me crazy," said Leo with a sigh that made Tyler laugh.

"Hey what are you doing tonight, Tommy?" Tyler asked.

"Working," I replied. "It's my last night at the restaurant."

"What time do you get off work?" he asked.

"Well that depends," I replied. "It's Friday so you never know what will happen."

"I'd like to hang out sometime soon," he said, glancing at Leo. "With both of you. New friends are always cool."

I smiled at him when he included Leo in the hanging out request. Leo's face brightened and that was enough reason to want to hug Tyler. Well that was one reason. I reminded myself that I had to be careful around Tyler Becket. He was just not touchable yet I found myself inviting him to Wendy's party on Sunday evening. That was my answer to his wanting to hang out. I told him that the entire gang would be there but it would be the last time the entire gang was together for a while.

"Sounds great," he said with a huge smile. "Just let me know where it is and what time to show up. Did you guys need me to bring anything?"

"Uh, no," I chuckled. "We've got all of that covered."

I wrote the address down for him and thought about the fact that he may learn about my sexuality at the party. Then I thought that if Loren had said that I was in the news he could have done his research and found out on his own. It didn't matter anyway. He'd find out sooner or later and maybe it would be better if he found out from me instead of someone who was trying to be rude about it.

He stayed and talked to us for a while as the line slowly inched forward. By the time I actually got all of my paperwork and dorm room key I was so hungry and tired I didn't even want to go to work. I was ready for the restaurant job to end and this was the final night that I would work there so I decided that taking a shower and getting myself in my car was the right thing to do.

Once I got there I was sorry I hadn't called off. The place was packed with people and all of the tables were full. Every stool at the bar had a person seated. There were orders waiting to be taken to various tables when I got there. It seemed like each table wanted a drink from the bar so I was running back and forth like an idiot all night long. The bus boys were on their job though. Every time a table emptied in my section they were up and on it. It was cleaned and set in a flash for the next party to sit and send me off running again.

By the time the restaurant closed I was dragging. I sat at the bar with a bottle of water in front of me counting my tips. I'd had a lucrative night and I thought about the fact that I'd miss the tips but my feet wouldn't be missing the hours I spent on them any time soon. The final tally of tips were more than my weekly paycheck from DH3 and I sighed as I traded one and five dollar bills for twenties after paying the bus boys the tip I'd decided to give them. They were all three happy as they walked away from me.

I finished my water and said my final goodbyes to the management. I got hugs from both of the cooks and told everyone else to head over to DH3 for coffee when they got a chance before heading out to my car. As soon as I got home I took my money up to my room and then sank into the tub to relax. It was nearly two in the morning and I was dead tired. I barely remember getting out of the tub and crawling into bed.

The next day it was a double shift at DH3. I'd told Dean that I wouldn't be able to do these kinds of shifts very often but he was in a bind so I volunteered. The day shift was fairly quiet and I got a chance to look over my paperwork for school while I cleaned the bar and coffee cups. The saucers went into the little dish washer.

Ben and Wendy came in around three and Leo and Nick followed shortly afterward. I served them each an iced coffee and they sat near the front windows as Loren and the other young man who had been with Tyler the night I'd met him, I guess his name was TK, came in. Loren smirked at me and the two started to talk quietly and laugh as they found a table. I walked over to wait on them but they ignored me for a good five minutes so I just walked away.

"What is this place like a 'no service' establishment?" Loren said loudly and I glared at him. I wasn't in the mood for his antics.

"I stood there for five minutes waiting to take your order," I called back. "You ignored me so if you want something you can come to the bar and order it."

"You're rude," he said. "Come over and take my order. After all that's your job right?"

I saw Ben get up as the other boy, TK, started to laugh. I just shook my head at him and went back to putting pastries in the glass case. I could feel Loren eyeing me but I wasn't playing his game. If he didn't straighten up I'd ask him to leave. Dean had told me it was completely within my power to refuse service to anyone and I was planning to exercise that right.

"I guess famous fags don't wait tables," said TK loud enough for everyone in the place to hear. Luckily my friends were the only other customers at the time.

"I didn't know that Loren was famous," I replied coldly, glaring at them. "I'm going to have to ask you guys to leave. I'm just too busy to serve you."

Now it was Loren who glared back at me. I didn't know what his problem with me was but I'd dealt with guys like him before. I'd deal with him again. For now though I just wanted him out of the coffee house. I didn't want trouble at work and I didn't want to have to call Dean in to deal with this. He was trusting me to run the place and I was going to keep that trust.

"What if we decide not to go?" asked Loren hatefully.

"Then we'll help you go," said Ben as he, Leo and Nick stood.

I just watched Loren and TK for a moment. Loren continued to glare at me but TK was trying to get him to leave. In the end TK just stood up and walked out leaving Loren to finish his staring match with me. I decided that I'd have to call Dean if he wouldn't leave. I didn't want to try force. I really hated guys like him.

"I'll talk to your manager about this," he finally said before turning to walk out. He knocked his chair over as he went.

"What an ass," said Wendy as she watched him join TK at the car parked in front of the coffee house.

"Yeah," I said as I walked around the bar to pick up his chair. "There's at least one in every five people."

The next day as Ben and I scoured the stores for cook out food Dean called my cell phone. I sighed as I looked at the number. I decided that if he was angry with me I'd have to tell him I couldn't work under those conditions. There were plenty of other jobs in Storyville and if I couldn't find one maybe I'd just take the year off and concentrate on my first year of college.

"Hello Dean," I said when I opened the phone and put it to my ear.

"Tommy, I just got a call from a customer that said you refused to serve him," said Dean's voice. "Now after hearing his name I already know what happened. I just wanted to call and let you know that he tried to get you into trouble. Now I've wrote his name down and left it on a piece of paper taped beside the register. He's no longer allowed to come into the coffee house. I've told him that but I wanted to tell you so that if he does come in you can just call the police."

"I'm sorry that it had to come to this," I replied, thinking that if he'd just acted like a human everything would have been fine. He could have left whatever problem he had with me outside of the coffee house.

"Don't be sorry," he said. "I want the college crowd in the coffee house but I don't want the college asses."

Well he'd hit that one on the head. They definitely were asses. I was just glad that I didn't have to deal with him anymore. After that call Ben and I discussed Loren a bit. Ben told me that he didn't know him but he recognized his type. He believed that Loren was just a homophobic bastard. I didn't know why but I suspected there was a lot more to it than mere homophobia.

We headed back to the house with the backseat and trunk of my car crammed with food. We'd also bought paper plates and a few towers of cups. I remembered the last party Wendy had thrown and they'd run out of plates and cups about midway through. Her parents weren't thrilled when their actual dishes had to be used to serve the guests.

"You are such a sweet heart," gushed Wendy's mother as we piled the paper plates and cups on her kitchen table. "I was actually starting to worry about the amount of people coming. Wendy only says that it's going to be a few friends but I remember every year that it's always a mass."

"Well this should keep you going for a while," I said as I helped her sort through the bags while Ben carried some stuff outside to Mitch.

"Just put that over on the table," said Mitch as Ben and I carried more plates of raw meat out to the backyard for him to grill. This was the preparation for Wendy's annual end of summer pool party only this time it was also a farewell party. They'd all be going to their different schools the next morning.

"Hey, Tommy," called Wendy as she eyed Ben with a huge grin. I knew I'd lost my helper as soon as I looked over at him and saw that cocky grin on his face that came every time that he looked at Wendy.

I continued to unload my car as Ben and Wendy playfully set up the tables on the other side of the pool. I felt a momentary twinge of jealousy as I watched them. I really missed having someone to act like that with. I pushed that feeling aside and headed back to my car to get the last of the chips and soda thinking that Steve was a complete asshole.

I'd been told that Steve would likely be at this party and I knew I'd have to deal with him if I wanted to say goodbye to my friends. I was thinking of exactly how I'd have liked to deal with Steve Sutton when Leo walked up the sidewalk to help me with the soda. I smiled at him as he grabbed the case of cans just before I dropped the bags in my other arm.

"Hey you," I said. "Thanks."

"Yeah," he replied with a smile of his own. "Looked like you were having a bit of trouble, Tommy."

"I was getting there," I laughed as we headed back around the side of the house to the side gate. "Glad you came."

"Thanks," he said. "I'm still a little surprised that Wendy invited me."

"Why?" I asked. "We're all friends. Remember?"

"Got it," he sighed, but he did smile after that.

Once all of the party supplies were carried back to the tables and put together Ben grabbed me and we headed off to grab some lunch. The party wasn't supposed to happen for four more hours and we were both hungry. Leo went along with us and Ben didn't even look at me strange. I was shocked that Wendy wasn't coming along but Ben had said that he wanted to spend as much time with me as possible that day. He and Wendy were leaving for Chicago to start the semester the next day.

"So you both got registered all right then?" Ben asked once we were seated at the restaurant. The waitress had just brought drinks and was now taking our lunch order back to the kitchen.

"Oh yeah," I said. "It was a thin slice of pure hell but it's all done."

"Any classes together?" he asked, looking from to Leo and back.

"Actually we have several of the same classes but only two of them at the same time," Leo said. "Both are computer courses."

"Now why doesn't that surprise me?" chuckled Ben. "You're both pretty snappy on those computers."

"Yeah," said Leo with a genuine smile. I'd had a talk with him about opening up a bit around Ben and Wendy. It seemed to have paid off.

"We have registration as soon as we get to Chicago," said Ben. "Wendy can't wait. I'm not really all that thrilled about standing in line for hours though."

"I won't lie to you about it," I said. "The lines at Storyville U were awful. I'm surprised that neither of us suffered heat stroke while we waited."

Over Philly cheese steaks and steak fries with onions we talked about the party. I think it was hard for either of us to talk about more than registration with the knowledge that as of tomorrow we would be living in separate cities. We talked about everyone that we thought would be at the party. Doug and Frank had both been invited even though we'd seen very little of them over the summer. Doug had been working with his father in Cedar Rapids while Frank had been in Carbondale taking summer classes. Mark and Rick would both be there as well. They'd been gone all summer on vacation with Mark's father. Maria had opted not to go with them for vacation because she wanted to spend time with her husband. That meant that the whole original gang would be there other than Peter and Marcie. Both of them had already left for college.

"Oh and I invited Tyler Becket," I informed Ben. "We saw him at registration and he asked to hang out so I just invited him to the party."

"Who is this again?" Ben asked, looking from me to Leo and back.

"I met him at DH3," I replied.

"Well the more the merrier," he said with a shrug. "I'm sure Wendy won't mind."

By the time we got back to Wendy's several people were already there helping her parents set up the back yard. Doug came over to give me a high five and pat on the back when we got out of the car. He looked at Leo and hesitated for just a second before shaking his hand. Mark and Rick were there as well. Mark was trying to talk Mitch into letting him grill the food while Rick was talking to Wendy and another girl who'd gone to school with us. I didn't see Tyler so far but I was sure he'd get there eventually.

"Tommy," called Ben from across the yard. "Help me move these benches to the other side of the pool. If everyone that Wendy invited shows up they'll need places to sit near the food."

I ran over and we moved the six iron benches that usually sat near the end of the yard in the flower garden back near the long patio table. Then we helped carry out chairs from inside the house for the same reason. Once done we got in a quick game of catch with Mark and Rick while Doug talked to Ben about football. Ben's football scholarship was something Doug was excited about.

As the party moved along I talked to just about all of the members of our "old gang" one on one. Mark told me that he was excited to be going to Iowa State while Rick expressed a few reservations about the school. Of course Jeremy would be staying in Storyville but he wasn't going to be attending Storyville U. Instead he'd be at the community college so that he could be home with his brother most of the time.

When it was time to eat I sat with Nick, Wendy and Ben. Everyone else just kind of crowded around us. Leo was generally accepted from most of the group. Jeremy still didn't say much of anything to him. Jeremy wasn't a talker though. I did notice that throughout the party Ben and Nick stayed close to me. I could virtually go nowhere without them at my hip. When Steve showed up with Vince and Maria they stuck close to me even more.

"Tommy, I wanted to talk to you," said Steve as he came straight over to where we were standing. Ben, Nick and Leo stepped in front of me.

"I think you've said all you're going to say to Tommy, Steve," said Nick, shocking the hell out of me.

"Nick . . ."

"No, Steve," he said. "Leave him alone."

I watched Steve's face fall as he turned to walk away from us. For a split second I felt sorry for him. Maybe it was having almost the whole gang around again but for a moment it was like he'd never hurt me. I wanted to run up to him and throw my arms around him. It was only a moment though. I didn't back slide at all. It took one more look from him to remind me that he wasn't my boyfriend anymore and I was happy, finally, without him.

I didn't have any trouble with Steve again that night. Even when I went to talk with Vince and hug Maria he stayed quiet and pretended to watch Nick and Wendy in the pool. Leo and Ben had walked over with me and Vince patted Ben on the back to congratulate him on his scholarship. I did see Steve snap to attention and look at me when I told Maria that I'd be moving into the dorm next week. When she asked why I didn't even look at Steve. I just told her that too many memories plagued me at the house and I wanted a fresh start.

Ben and I stayed to help clean up the party when everyone started to leave. I hadn't seen Tyler even once but there were so many people there I had no idea if he'd even been there. With Ben talking a mile a minute about our past together I didn't have much time to worry about Tyler. Nick came over to help but he was strangely very quiet.

"And we'll have to email each other practically every day," Ben said.

"Well we do have to study, Ben," I laughed. "But I'll email as often as I can."

"Just don't replace me as your best friend, Tommy," he said as he stood still and looked at me hard. I could see the fear in his eyes as he looked at me.

"You know I'd never even try to do that," I said with as much conviction as I could muster. Ben was the best friend anyone could ever ask for.

"Just so we understand that we're always going to be best friends," he said, turning back to the clean up.

I stood there for a second and just looked at him. I couldn't believe that he'd even think I would find another best friend. It was crazy. Besides this wouldn't be the first time that we'd lived away from each other. I'd remained his best friend the entire time he was in Maine. Chicago wasn't that far away from Storyville. He knew that as well as I did. If either of us needed the other we weren't far enough away that it would be a problem.

"Hey tuff guy," Wendy said as she came over to say goodnight when we were done cleaning. "Got a hug for your mall buddy?"

"Oh get over here," I said with a smile as I took her into my arms and held her tight. "I'm gonna miss you, Wendy."

"Me too," she said. "But I'll call you at least twice a week."

"All right," I replied. "Love you."

"Mean it," she replied as I let go of her.

I let her have a moment with Ben as Leo and I made our way to my car. He asked how I was doing as we sat there waiting for Ben. I told him that I'd be fine as we watched Nick drive off without even saying a word to any of us. I thought that was odd but there wasn't much I could do about it. Ben and Wendy would be driving to Chicago, but Nick would be taking a flight to California the next day. I knew when that flight left so I planned to get up early to head him off. He wasn't leaving Storyville without saying goodbye to me.

"Let's hit it," said Ben as he got in the car. Wendy waived at us one more time before we drove off.

"Nick left without saying goodbye," I informed him as we drove.

"Yeah he's been really quiet since yesterday," replied Ben. "I guess he doesn't handle goodbyes well."

"I'm going to gank him in the morning before his flight," I said as we pulled up in front of Leo's foster home.

"Night guys," he said as he climbed out of the back seat. "Tommy I'll see you tomorrow."

"Sure thing," I said as we watched him go. We stayed put until he went inside.

As we drove away from Leo's a tense silence began to build between us for only the second time in our entire friendship. There was so much I wanted to say to him and I'm sure he had plenty to say to me. I was really worried about his thinking that I might replace him as my best friend. I couldn't believe he would even think I could.

"Ben you know how much you mean to me right?" I asked, deciding to break our silence.

"If I mean half as much to you as you mean to me, Tommy, we should have been lovers," he said, shocking me into silence. "You have to know, Tommy. That time you told me that you had a crush on me I was so happy to hear it. Even though I knew I wasn't gay I had a little crush on you too. I kind of still do."

I was so shocked that I didn't even realize that we'd pulled up in my driveway. I did have the presence of mind to turn off the engine before I stared at him. Where had that come from? I couldn't even process it long enough to respond at that point. I loved Ben with all of my heart but it wasn't that kind of love. The crush he talked about had ended once we'd had our talk in Florida as kids. To hear that he had a crush on me now was almost the strangest thing that had ever happened to me in my life.

"Say something, Tommy," he said finally. He was staring at me with a nervous expression.

"I don't know what to say to that," I admitted. "I love you, Ben. I really do but you have to understand that it's not . . ."

"I know it's not like that," he cut me off. "I just wanted you to know how important you are to me; how important our friendship is to me."

"I do know," I said. "Ben I would never want any other best friend. You have nothing to worry about."

We talked for a while longer and I finally got him to believe that I really wouldn't try to replace him. We were both in tears by the time he left to go home and get what little sleep he could before he and Wendy were to leave for Chicago. I sat there for a moment and just watched as he walked through the gate and into my back yard to get to his own.

I went into the house and stood in the living room for a moment. It was real now. Ben was really leaving. I wondered how it was going to feel to not be able to just walk into Tom and Shirley's front door and find him there. How strange was it going to be when I had to call him and know that he wasn't just across the yard from me?

I was shocked out of my thoughts of Ben's leaving when Nick walked through my front door. There were tears streaming down his face as he stood there and looked at me. I didn't know what to say. Then he put his arms out to me. I walked over and accepted his embrace. Nothing could have prepared me for what he did next. I expected him to hug me when he put his arms out. Instead I felt his lips on mine and then his tongue was running across my bottom lip. I was so stunned that I opened my mouth and gave him access. It was odd at first but then I just decided to let go. I put my arms around him and pulled him closer as our kiss got deeper. When he drew back he looked at me with shocked eyes.

"I'm sorry, Tommy," he said. "I just had to."

With that he turned and walked out of the house and all I could do was stand there and watch him go. Nick Andrews had kissed me.

Storyville 3