Forty-five minutes ago, he flashed his fake ID and chugged his last beer at the bar with his best friend.
Now, Jake lay face down on the dirt and gravel road with his face pummeled. The taste of his own blood seeped from his nose into his mouth. He’d never been in more pain in his life.
They’d never find his body out here in Forest Hills, not in the middle of nowhere. Only a half an hour from Portland, Oregon, but off the beaten path where no one ever came to. Everyone thought the state was liberal, they had no idea about its dirty underbelly.
Thick with evergreen trees, too hoarded by tree huggers to be cut down, too wild to tame. Ferns and bushes smothered the forest floor; the perfect place to hide a dead body. Even the wildlife seemed to be shocked into silence.
He rolled over to see the infinite stars glittered in the cloudless sky. Would have been breathtaking any other night. Any other night that he wasn’t bleeding from the inside.
Focus, dammit, focus.
Cold chills from the midnight air ran through Jake’s body. He couldn’t hold a thought; his mind spiraled like a never-ending twister, passing in and out of time.
Disassociated thoughts. Something, anything. Scrambling, trying to keep his mind focused.
He should have worn a jacket and for once, he wished he’d gotten the chance to say goodbye to his dad and sister. He hadn’t seen them in years. Maybe then there would be a chance at finding his body.
Now, Jake would never get to see his dad’s face. Never get to watch him stifle his tears of joy as he one day graduated from college, the first in the family, nor fulfill his dreams of becoming somebody. His dad would know then how much he missed out on Jake’s life by abandoning them.
That would never happen, neither would there be a family for Jake one day, not even a chance. He didn’t even get a chance at a career. Other than a few massage therapy courses, Jake had no idea what he wanted to do with his life and he’d never get a chance to figure that out.
He’d die tonight, just another growing statistic of gay bashing.
Grunts from the homophobic mob of rednecks muffled his best friend Alberto’s cries for help. Bones cracking, bats pummeling his almost lifeless body. He deserved so much better in his life.
Guilt burned through Jake. He wasn’t tough enough to defend Alberto though he’d tried. Wiry and pale, Jake didn’t have a prayer of a chance against that many guys.
“You’re going to make it through this. We’re both going to live a long life,” he mumbled to himself, though that was a lie.
There was a bone-cracking sound. Had they murdered Alberto? Jake wanted to kill them, if only he had the strength.
“Alberto,” Jake tried to scream out, but his throat was too dry, too strained, too coated with the dust he sucked in, his strength nearly depleted.
“Faggot,” he heard the men say. Faggot, that word stung and clung to him like a bad stench, an ugly reminder of why they’d kept being gay a secret for so long.
Now, the world would know; if they ever found his remains, spray-painted with the word Fag on it.
His stomach turned thinking about the shock and embarrassment his dad would endure, the stain to their family name.
What a fucked up night. Jake only wanted Alberto to have a good time for his birthday.
The crunching sound of the gravel gave him a sense of relief. The men piled into the back of the pickup truck, whooping and cheering like they’d just won a football game as it began to back up, leaving them for dead. Maybe there was a way out of this, a way to still help Alberto.
He twisted his neck and grimaced in pain. That’s when he saw him — the attacker was returning. The leader of the mob.
Tall and over-sized, the monster of a young man came toward him, ready to finish him off.
Something about him seemed familiar. That voice; he’d heard it before and he remembered those emerald green eyes that glowed like a predator. The scent of Old Spice, cigarettes and beer.
Jake froze, what little blood remained in his body, drained from his pale face. The hair lifted on his arms, and the tendons of his neck strained.
He knew who the guy was.
He could see his silhouette backlit by the headlights of the rumbling, battered and mud-stained truck. The exhaust coughed and sputtered, filling his stinging nostrils with heavy pungent smog, the taste bitter.
The attacker gripped the baseball bat in his hand, ready to take another shot at Jake’s head.
Jake’s heart pounded so hard, it was deafening, ready to explode. Petrified, his eyes bulged, but his blood boiled with anger.
This motherfucker had just taken away the only somebody he ever loved, the only somebody who cared about him unconditionally. And there was nothing he could do about it.
Like a chunk of his heart had gone missing. It far outweighed the physical pain he’d woken up to.
Everything that happened the other night was a nightmare. As the tubes ran in and out of Jake’s body like an electrical grid; the rasping sound of the breathing machine next to him cranked in and out. His heart monitor’s rhythmic never-ending beep ticked on, Jake had just one thought on his mind.
“Son,” his dad said, sitting by the hospital bed. “Who did this to you?” He was Jake’s step-dad officially, but the only father Jake had ever known. He had bags under his eyes, his weathered face worn and etched in worry no matter how good he thought he was at hiding it. It’d been so long since Jake had seen his dad, it was sad to see him age so badly. Years of stress, guilt and alcohol abuse hadn’t helped.
“I … don’t know,” Jake lied. He didn’t want to get into it. He knew how bad his dad’s temper was and the last thing he needed was more drama.
His father sighed. He must have resented the fact that Jake wouldn’t open up to him and but his father had only himself to blame.
Part of Jake wanted to hug him after so long not having seen him, but the other part of him remained so angry with him, he just couldn’t let go.
Besides, no amount of fatherly lectures, nor meds could numb Jake from the pain he felt right now.
Water, water, why am I so thirsty? Ice cubes were not going to cut it.
“Son, please tell me. What were you doing out there?” he asked and Jake bit his lip. “And why the hell did they spray paint that — that word on you?”
“I …” Jake started to say, cringing in discomfort. He wanted to tell his father everything he’d been hiding his whole life, but he couldn’t bear what it would do to him in a small town like the one he grew up in to know his son was a homo. He wondered sometimes if his father regretted naming him after him. Technically speaking, Jake was a junior, when he was adopted legally by him as a toddler, they changed his name, but that title brought with it a lot of burden.
“You can tell me,” his father said. “That word. Why that of all things?”
His chest tightened as he said, “I told you. I don’t know. I don’t remember. Can I just sleep?”
“Of course.” His dad forced a smile, hiding his smile as usual. His dad used to be a really handsome man. There was a time when all the ladies used to look at him twice but now, the years of stress had worn him down. He took a giant breath of relief in. The scent of his exhale told Jake, he’d gone back to cigarettes when he swore he’d quit. “My son’s all man. I bet you got one or two of those chicks at that college of yours too. Don’t you?”
“You know me,” Jake said, conjuring up a smile.
“Son, the cops said — when you’re feeling better, they have a few questions for you,” his dad said approaching closer.
Jake swallowed, they were the last people he wanted to talk to.
“Son, I promise you, when I find these guys,” his dad continued, gripping to the side of the bed like he was wringing someone’s neck. “I’m going to make them wish—”
“Dad — Dad. Don’t worry. I’ll never see them again. It’s over,” Jake told him, hoping it was true. With his father’s heart condition, the last thing he needed was to lose him too.
“Okay, yeah … you’re right,” his dad said, tough as nails. Jake had never seen him cry before, but he could tell by the puffiness of his eyes that that’s what he’d been doing.
Jake sighed. He really wasn’t in the mood to talk.
“You got a place to stay?” his dad asked.
“I’m fine,” Jake told him, though he had no clue where. With Alberto in the hospital, there’s no way he could sneak into his dorm room every night.
“I want you to stay with me for awhile with me and your sister Genie, ‘till you get better,” his dad told him.
“I’m cool,” Jake said.
“That wasn’t a request,” his dad said firmly. “Genie will be by later on. She cleared out your old bedroom.”
There was no sense in arguing with his dad. What would a few days hurt? He took a deep breath as if to gather strength for what he really wanted to ask.
“Dad, please, tell me. Is he dead? My friend Alberto—?” Jake asked, wheezing between breaths. Even the words choked in his mouth.
His father let out a breath as if releasing the stress of the world. “Son—”
“Mr. Richards. Jake, Sr.?” the doctor interrupted as he poked his head in. “Can I see you for a moment?”
“Sure,” his dad told him. “Rest up.”
His dad was gone. Jake wanted to scream out for him to return, but he didn’t have the strength. A quick glance at the warped reflection in the chrome rails that held him in and he didn’t even recognize his own face. If he didn’t have a chance for love before, this took it to a whole other level. Only one man held his heart, and now he didn’t know if Alberto was alive or dead.
“God help me!” Someone was talking in their sleep from behind the curtain next to him. Cramped and filthy, this is where the hospital stuck poor people they didn’t want to deal with. The outburst made Jake jump until he realized what it was.
The room stank of shit and Clorox so strong the fumes made it difficult to breathe. God only knows how long it was before the orderlies visited this room, bedpans neglected, crusty dried remains of the other patients’ meals.
If the constant paging over the hospital speakers didn’t get to him, the groans and moans from the person in the next bed would. Even the crusty remains of the flowers and half-filled helium balloons, saying ‘Get Well’ no doubt brought by his father’s church, could lift his spirits.
It’d been years since he’d seen any of the congregation. He couldn’t believe how active he used to be in the church. He still had many of their emails and had been tempted to reach out to them. But why? If they got word that he was gay, it’d only ruin his family’s reputation.
A bone-chilling draft raced through the paper-thin blankets and up the backside of his hospital gown as if to bring his mind back to where he was.
He could barely make out the muffled tones of his father and doctor speaking. His dad sounded irritated about something, but what? He couldn’t make out.
“Jake,” his dad said, racing inside catching his breath. “Alberto, he—”
Jake bit his lip to keep his eyes from watering. This was it: the finality of what he knew was coming. His heart monitor beeped like a hummingbird.
“Did he suffer?” Jake asked.
“Son, Alberto’s alive.”
“Anybody home?” Jake turned around to see his sister Genie standing at the hospital room door. He raced over to her as quickly as his body would allow him and squeezed the life out of her. Five years. Had it been that long since he’d seen or heard from her? She was just who he needed right now standing in Alberto’s room, seeing him like that.
“Look at you, still skin and bones,” she told him.
“And you, still slutty-looking as ever,” he teased.
“Right off the catwalk,” she told him, turning around to show him all her curves squeezed into a striped dress and tossed her long red mane out of her face. “Hey, you gotta use what you got.”
“Use what you got? Don’t you mean, on the street corner?” he said.
“Don’t think just cause you’re bigger I can’t still beat you up,” she said, trying to hide her smile.
He chuckled. It felt good to smile for once. She angled so she could take a better look at Alberto and sighed.
“Shit,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said, seeing him like this was horrible to say the least. “He always asked about you.”
“So sad. You get a hold of his mom yet?”
“Tried. No answer.” He didn’t want to get into the fact that she cut him off ever since finding out he was gay. “Dad wants me to go back with you guys for awhile,” Jake said, rolling his eyes.
He turned to Alberto as he lay unconscious in the bed. It’d taken him days to be well enough to visit and even then, he had to fight the medical staff to let him see him.
“I know … Does he know?” she asked.
“About you … being gay.”
“What?” he said. He’d never told her or anyone in the family before. But he didn’t want to lie anymore either. He was tired of it. It was draining.
“What are you talking about? Who said that?” Jake said, swallowing hard as he leaned against Alberto’s bed frame to keep from falling. His sister Genie, pulled out her bottle of perfume and sprayed the hospital room. Seeing her after all these years put a smile on his face, but he did not want to talk about this right now.
She fanned her hand in front of her face as if to change the subject.
“Jeez, Jake. God, what died in here?” she said.
“I never said anything about me being … you know?” Jake said, lowering his voice so the other patients in the room wouldn’t hear.
“I’m not going to tell nobody,” she said, tidying up the room and grimacing at the IV bags filled with blood and other fluids. “Besides, I think it’s kind of cool to have a gay brother.”
“Quiet. Do you want people to—?” Jake told her, scolding her with a look. He didn’t know who was on the other side of the curtain next to Alberto, but he couldn’t afford the risk.
“To what? Jake there’s a whole world out there besides Portland and definitely besides Forest Hills. Trust me, I know. Anyway, I always knew you and Alberto were getting it on.”
“We’re not … we never …” Jake said, shifting his position. “We’re just friends.”
“But you wanted to. I could see it in your eyes. I think it’s cute actually, but if you ask me, there’s somebody else out there in the world. Besides, Mexicans can’t keep their dicks in their pants.”
“He’s not Mexican. He’s Puerto Rican remember and—” Jake said, narrowing his eyes at her.
“Same thing,” she told him rolling her eyes. “Anyway little brother, I’ve got a few friends I think you’d absolutely love.”
“I don’t want to meet anyone. I’m not looking … And, will you keep it down? If you haven’t noticed people don’t exactly deal well with guys like me.”
“Reminds me… Here,” she said, pulling out a piece of paper and pen as she scribbled something on it and handed it to him.
He took it. BENJAMIN RICHARDS — 555-6688
“What’s this?” he said, tilting the scrap of paper from side to side. Richards. Why did he have the same last name as him? Wait a minute.
“No. I’m not calling him.” Jake said, his jaw clenching.
“Jake, he’s our step-brother. And he runs his own self-defense mixed martial arts gym — boxing, jiu jitsu, kickboxing, you name it. I tracked him down a couple of years ago.”
“Have you met him?” Jake asked.
“Well, no. Not yet, but—”
“Then, why do you expect me to? He probably hates us. His dad ran off with our mother, remember? Ruined his whole family. What would he want with me? And why would he want to help me?” Jake asked.
“Just think about it. Besides, if you’re going to be — the way you are, you gotta learn how to defend yourself,” she told him, lowering her voice.
“I appreciate it, I do but I decided … I’m not that way anymore,” he said, biting his lower lip.
She laughed in his face. “So, you just upped and decided, did you?”
“It’s not worth it. I can be into girls. I used to date girls,” he replied defensively, crossing his arms.
“Back in the third grade and from what I remember, you were more interested in their Barbies than them. That is before Dad beat that shit out of you.”
He pushed the memories out of his head. He didn’t want to think about the way things used to be. “So, I read about these camps where they —” he started to say, changing the subject, “these churches that pray the gay away.”
Even saying those words made him sick to his stomach. It was humiliating and exhausting to constantly be someone he wasn’t. He’d tried everything to change. But maybe he wasn’t trying hard enough.
“Are you out of your mind? The only thing those camps do is take your money in the name of Jesus. Half those preachers are sucking hot dogs on the side as it is.”
“Genie!” Jake chuckled. She always had a way of making him laugh.
“Just keep it quiet. If you’re going to live with us, we can’t have anyone in town knowing. With the law firm I work at … I want to be more than just an assistant and then there’s dad. He’d be—”
“No, I get it,” Jake said.
“Listen sweetie, I gotta go. You keep that card now. Call him. Our step-brother only lives a few towns away,” she told him, kissing him on the cheek and draping the purse over her shoulder as she left.
“I hate you,” he said.
“Hate you too!” she said with a smile. “Queen.”
“Slut,” he fired back.
“Hey, at least I own it. I’ll come visit tomorrow. Smooches,” she told him.
He shook his head, turning to his unconscious friend, Alberto. Seeing that tube down his throat, his corner in the hospital room looking like a lab experiment was hard. He lifted a comb from the nightstand next to the hospital bed and fleeced it through Alberto’s hair. He’d die if anyone saw him like this.
“What do you think, Alberto? Think I can go straight for awhile?” he asked him, squeezing his hand. His face still swollen, he barely resembled himself.
“I’m sorry I … failed you. But when you wake up and we get out of here, we’re going to move. I don’t care what it takes. You and me, we’re going to move away as far as we can and start over— together. We’ll find wives, have families, we can do it. That way nobody will bother us anymore.”
Jake sighed. The hypnotic rasp of the breathing machine echoed in the silence. “Please, wake up Alberto. Forgive me.”
“Knock-knock,” a gruff man’s voice said, startling Jake as he rapped on the door frame. At first, he thought Genie had come back.
But then, that smell — Old Spice, beer and cigarettes. Jake didn’t need to turn around before he knew whom it was. The hairs rising from the back of his neck confirmed his worst fears.
“You touch him and I’ll —” Jake said, his eyes locked on the man with emerald green eyes.
“And you’ll what? Tell me faggot, cause I’d like to hear this one,” he answered with a smirk on his face.
There was no midnight dark to shroud him anymore, nor a hood. He recognized that face clear as day.
Jake recognized Alberto’s frat brother in the clear of day. The scratches his best friend gave Steve across his face were still fresh, giving Jake some satisfaction.
Alberto had always done whatever he could to avoid Steve and his constant taunts at the frat house. He told Jake about it often, but Jake never thought Steve would take it as far as he did that night. Though he’d done well at hiding the fact he was gay from anyone, Steve would make fun of his voice and the rags he wore to school.
His hand gripped Alberto’s bed as if to protect him. Although he knew he was helpless to do anything defend him, he’d be damned if Steve was going to hurt his best friend again.
“I’m going to call the cops,” Jake warned.
“The cops?” he said, arching his eyebrow and letting out a chuckle, and mimicking Jake’s soft voice while adding a lisp. “That doesn’t sound like the type of loyalty from Alberto or his boyfriend that we expect from our fraternity. You do know who my father is, don’t you?”
“Why? Who?” Jake asked, his voice cracking.
“Bubba Channing — Sheriff Bubba Channing?” he said.
Jake swallowed hard. Steve grabbed him.
“No, I don’t think you’ll be making that phone call.” He cackled.
Jake gasped for breath, but the man’s grip on his already fragile wrist paralyzed him.
“What do you want?” Jake said, lifting his chin in faux defiance.
“I just wanted to make sure we’re on the same page. That’s all. Your little boyfriend did a doozy on my face. But that’s nothing compared to what he did to my life. They pulled that full scholarship from me, you know? Almost kicked me off campus for good cause of that snitch,” Steve said as he stepped forward.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have harassed us on campus. Maybe you shouldn’t have—”
Jake didn’t even finish his thought. He couldn’t hide how uncomfortable he was and a smile spread across Steve’s face.
“I always thought you were soft Jakey, didn’t know you were a homo until that night. Does your dad know about your little activities? Does your church? Do the rest of the student body at St. Mary’s Christian University? I betcha they don’t. No, something tells me you’re going to keep your mouth shut. I can make your life a living hell, I promise you that. And your little boyfriend’s too. It’d be a shame to see him suffer more.”
“What’s this?” his dad said, coming out of nowhere as he entered Alberto’s hospital room carrying flowers for Alberto.
“Mr. Richards,” Steve said, turning on the charm. “Steve Channing — Just a friend of your son’s.”
“Oh? Well, the pleasures mine. Never met any of his friends,” his dad said, hiding his smile as he set the flowers down.
“When I heard what happened I was just mortified,” Steve told him, as charming as ever.
“That’s what he needs. Friends, real friends. You’re a good man, Steve,” his dad said, shaking his hand.
“Thanks, Mr. Richards. Whatever it takes to keep his spirits up, we’re here for him,” Steve said, looking back at Jake who was at his wits end by now. “Well, I better head out. School tomorrow.”
“Sure thing. Thanks for coming,” his dad waved him off.
“Bye, Jakey!” Steve said as he exited.
“Good guy, that Steve,” his dad said, placing his hand on Jake’s shoulder. “We should have him over for dinner sometime.”
But Jake was lost in his thoughts.
“I’m going to grab some coffee. Need anything?” his dad asked, waking him from his thoughts.
“Uh, no,” Jake said.
“Don’t worry, he’s going to pull through this,” his dad comforted. “I know this isn’t the best place in the world for Alberto, but I’m going to pull some extra hours on the road, pick up some cash, take care of him.”
“Thanks,” Jake said, though his thoughts were elsewhere.
“I’ll even check on him from time to time. I’ve got to run, son.” His dad exited, but Jake was in another world. He turned to Alberto, his jaw tense.
“Don’t worry Alberto, I’m going to figure this out,” he told him with conviction.
He had to do something, but what? CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST