Jennifer Cosgrove © 2018
All Rights Reserved
“There you are.”
A murmured meow was Ben’s answer as Biscuit settled next to him, curling close to his side. He was wide awake. It was still dark outside, the only light in the room coming through the window from the streetlight on the corner. The alarm hadn’t gone off yet, but he’d trained himself to be up at the crack of dawn. He stretched, careful not to disturb the cat, and ran a hand through his hair in an attempt to flatten out the mess. He was in dire need of a haircut. Every year, he decided to grow it out, and every year, he changed his mind as soon as hockey season was on the horizon. It was just too much to deal with under a hockey helmet. Besides, he looked a little ridiculous with long hair.
He stared at the ceiling and let the rare quiet of the house wash over him. Most guys his age would sleep until noon, especially on summer break, but that wasn’t going to happen. The alarm started going off and Ben grabbed for the phone, accidentally knocking it off the nightstand along with his Band of Brothers DVDs and sending Biscuit scurrying away and out the door. He fumbled over the side of the bed, finally snagged the phone, and swiped across the screen to turn off the cheerful beeping.
Maybe he should just give in and go to the rink, get in some early ice time. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. His dad would probably get up and give him a ride. Ben rose and took a step toward the door. Or he’d tell him to go back to bed—it’s an off day, for god’s sake, Ben. Probably not, then. He shut the door with a click and got back in bed, scrolling through the texts from last night out of habit.
Ryan: he was in the shop again
Ryan: I didn’t say anything
Ryan: I wouldn’t do that
Ben: I know.
Ryan: you’re going to have to talk to him eventually
At that, Ben had put his phone down and gone to bed. Ryan meant well, but he wasn’t ready to deal with that. It just didn’t work that way. Not for him. Not now.
Ben looked at the time and groaned. When the phone beeped again, he turned it completely off and tossed it back onto the nightstand. He thought about getting up anyway but dragged a pillow over his head instead. Sleep deserved another try.
The next time Ben woke up it was to a pounding on his bedroom door that could only be one person. “Cut it out, Bethy!”
“Quit playing with yourself and get up, Benny!” The giggling that followed was cut short when he heard his mom’s voice coming up the stairs, followed by her light footsteps.
“Beth! Leave your brother alone.” A pause. “And don’t be crude.”
Ben rolled his eyes and struggled to sit up. There was a gentle tapping on his door. “Ben, honey?”
The door opened and she peeked in cautiously.
“Remember we’re going to help Gran today.” How could he forget? She’d reminded him every day for the past week. It wasn’t like he was going to suddenly develop amnesia or something. “And we need to leave soon, so if you want breakfast, you’d better get a move on.”
He definitely wanted breakfast. “I’ll be right down.”
“Hurry. The vultures are circling,” she said with a wink and closed the door behind her.
Ben got up, stretched, and rolled his shoulders. He thought about going through the flexibility routine Coach Jordan recommended, but he just didn’t feel like it. It was his day off, and he was going to stick to that. He let his routine slip a bit during the summer, and he’d get enough of a workout moving heavy boxes and furniture, anyway. His grandma was leaving the cold winters of upstate New York to escape to Florida’s warmer climate. She’d laughed when he told her she was a walking, talking cliché.
“That might be true, my love, but I’ll still be the youngest one down there.” It was true. She’d taken early retirement when his grandfather had gotten ill, and now that he’d passed, she had the means to make a move closer to her sister. He was going to miss her.
“Ben?” His mom’s voice floated up the stairs.
He sighed and picked up the DVDs that had fallen down beside the bed and started pulling clothes out so he could tell her, honestly, that he was getting ready.
“Plate’s on the table.”
Ugh. He’d better hurry. He could smell bacon, and either Beth or his dad would have no qualms about stealing it right off his plate. Always the bacon. And today it would be real bacon instead of turkey bacon, so that made it even more tempting. Not that turkey bacon ever stopped them. He felt a twinge of guilt for making his mom fix two different breakfasts most days, but it was something they’d lived with from the time he’d started high school. Ever since he got serious about hockey.
It was all he’d ever wanted to do. He’d known from the first time he stepped out on the ice. He was good at it, and he was lucky to have supportive parents. It hadn’t been easy. The equipment and fees were expensive, and the demanding training and game schedules were always a challenge. But he was never late to practice, and they’d never missed a home game. It would be worth it, he thought. The college scholarship would make a huge difference. He didn’t want his parents to bear all the burden of putting him and his sister through school, not if he could help it.
He pulled on a faded Flyers T-shirt and opened his door, almost tripping over the ball of fluff waiting right outside. “Dammit, Biscuit!” He received a put-upon meow in return as he scooped the cat up in his arms. Biscuit’s rumbling purr was comforting against his chest as he carried him down the stairs. The cat started to squirm as soon as they got to the kitchen, ready to get at the food waiting in his dish.
Ben absently brushed cat hair off his shirt before sitting at the table in front of a plate piled high with eggs, bacon, and fruit. He was just in time because his dad and sister had almost finished their own breakfasts and were already eyeballing his. It was a cheat day, for god’s sake, but they were all vicious when it came to bacon. “Morning.”
Not quite sociable yet, his dad answered with a grunt. He’d be better after his second cup of coffee.
His mom swooped by and ruffled his hair. “You have ten minutes.” Ben ran a hand through his already messy hair and groaned. She narrowed her eyes. “Get a move on.”
He took her at her word and dug in. After he finished, he slurped down coffee and juice and took the extra precaution of downing a glass of water. It was already warm outside, even for August, and it’d be a long sweaty day.
“When do you think we’ll be getting home?” He’d promised Ryan he would go to a party with him tonight. It was a promise that only a best friend could drag out of him. Ben didn’t like parties for the most part, especially ones where there was drinking and other stuff. He knew it made him look like a goody-goody or a stick-in-the-mud or whatever other term Ryan could dream up to tease him with, but he didn’t like to take any chances. He couldn’t put his future in danger, as dramatic as that sounded in his own head.
His mom was digging through her purse for her keys. He let her look for a few seconds before reaching over and plucking them off the hook. She took them with a lopsided smile. “Sorry, what did you say?”
Ben rolled his eyes with a grin. She knew his practice schedule better than he did, but could never keep up with her keys. “What time do you think we’ll be back?”
“Why? Got a hot date or something?”
Ben grimaced behind her back. There was a lot she didn’t know about him, especially in that respect. He opened the front door and gestured for her to go ahead.
“Nah. Ryan talked me into going to a thing at someone’s house. Holtsy’s girlfriend’s?” He didn’t think she’d have a problem with him going to a party, but he didn’t want to have to answer a lot of questions. Plus, she loved Ryan.
She gave him an odd look before unlocking the car. She knew he didn’t like parties. “We should be back in plenty of time. You want to drive there or back?”
He’d had his driver’s license for only two weeks and was still nervous behind the wheel. It hadn’t helped that he’d put off learning how to drive until this summer, right before his senior year. The only reason he finally relented was because he’d be off to college soon, and his dad pointed out they wouldn’t be there to drive him to practice or class. So Ben had sucked it up and decided to learn. Driving still scared the hell out of him, though.
“Back.” The traffic would be lighter at least.
“All right.” They had a brief squabble over the radio that his mom won, before heading out. It was just the two of them, as Beth would be coming later with their dad after running some errands. “But no trying to get out of it this time.”
Ben shook his head and smiled out the window. “I won’t.”
Margaret Lewis was Ben’s biggest fan. Gran had gone to as many of his games as she possibly could, right from the beginning. He loved her for it. She was waiting on the front porch when they pulled up in front of her house, and was down the steps before they even got out of the car, waving the entire time. Ben’s grin matched his mom’s. Gran’s enthusiasm was contagious.
Ben jogged to the front porch and gave her a hug, accepting her kiss on the cheek.
“You’ve gotten taller since I last saw you.” She made it sound accusatory as she wiped a smear of lipstick off his face, as if he hadn’t been almost a head taller than her for years.
“You saw me last week.”
“Still.” She bumped him out of the way to give his mom a hug. “Anne, don’t you think he’s gotten taller?” The two of them were very close. His mom’s parents had both passed away in a car accident when she was a teenager, and over time, Gran had become a second mom to her.
“If you go by the extra groceries I’m buying, then yes.”
Ben groaned as they both laughed, but there was truth in what she was saying. It was a constant struggle to keep weight on and build the muscle he needed to be strong and fast on the ice. He’d learned that bulking up as much as he could during the summer helped him maintain that level of fitness longer during the season.
Still, he knew his line here. “I can’t help that I’m always hungry.”
Gran patted his cheek and nudged him inside. “Work hard, and you’ll get to find out what I’m making for lunch. We’re doing the attic today.”
Ben bit back another groan. It was going to be miserable and cramped, and he’d be the one shoved up there to lower down boxes for them to go through.
The attic was just as hot and stifling as he’d expected. Ben had to be careful not to accidentally drop something while moving the heavy boxes and other things that had been stored up there. He scrubbed a hand across his sweaty face and pushed his hair out of his eyes. His dad had arrived promptly after lunch and offered to take over, but Ben waved him off. He’d made good progress, and it didn’t make sense to have someone else suffer from the heat.
He brought a box all the way down the ladder and handed it off. “I’ll be right back, just grabbing some water.”
“How much more is up there?” His dad peered up into the narrow opening that led up into the small space.
Ben shook his head. “You don’t want to know. We’ve made a dent, but there’s still a lot.”
“Shit.” His dad clapped him on the shoulder, balancing the box in his other arm. “Go take a break. You’ve earned it.”
Ben went down stairs and grabbed a bottle of water out of the fridge. He flopped down on a kitchen chair and restrained himself from pouring the ice-cold water over his head. The combination of heat and physical labor was more tiring than he’d expected. Slumping back in the chair, he gazed at the living room full of the boxes and bags he’d hauled out of the attic. His mom, Beth, and Gran were going through them but kept stopping to show each other things they’d found. It looked like barely controlled chaos to him, but they seemed to know what they were doing.
He pressed the water bottle to the back of his neck for a few seconds before drinking half of it in one go. Closing his eyes, he let the chatter from the next room wash over him. Somehow, he’d managed to avoid thinking about it all day, but Ben hated that Gran was moving. Even though he hadn’t said as much to anyone, they could probably tell.
He opened his eyes just in time to see Beth pull a flat wooden box out of a storage container. She held it up—it looked old and worn, but still solid, and the dark grain caught the sunlight that filtered in through the windows. “Gran, what’s this?”
Gran looked at the box and gasped. “Oh, heavens. I haven’t seen that thing in ages.” She took it from Beth and turned it over in her hands. Her eyes seemed to be glowing. Ben leaned forward to hear what she had to say about it, wondering what was causing such a reaction.
“This belonged to my Uncle Will.” Gran ran a finger over the lid. “My mum held on to it after he died in the war. Grandmother refused to even look at it. It always reminded her of…well. Will broke her heart, in the end.” She shook her head. “There’s quite the story here.”
“Which war?” That was from Beth, still looking at the box curiously.
“World War Two, love.” She gave her a sad smile. “A lot of boys lost in that war.”
Beth snorted. “You should let Ben take a look. All he cares about is hockey and history anyway.”
Ben stuck his tongue out at her before walking over to take a closer look. Gran handed it to him, and the box was heavier than it looked. There were initials carved into the lid. “WLH?”
“William Leonard Harris.” Gran turned and rummaged in the container that the box had come out of and came up with a framed picture. “Here he is.” It was a faded sepia-toned portrait of a uniformed young man, a proud smile on his face. “I never knew him, but Mum told me a lot about him. He would have been my godfather if he’d lived. Uncle Eddie stepped up in his place.” She put the picture back in the container. “You should take the box home and see what’s inside. It’s been so long since I’ve seen it, I’d love for you to bring it back and tell me what you find. Besides, it would be a shame if it got lost in the move.”
“Are you sure?” Ben had to admit, he really wanted to know what was inside.
“Sure, honey.” Gran patted him on the shoulder. “Just take care of it, okay?”
They left a couple of hours later with the assurance they’d come back the next weekend and help finish up. Gran would have plenty to deal with in the meantime. Beth volunteered to ride along just to harass him the entire way home, despite their mom repeatedly telling her to cut it out. Still, Ben managed to drive them back without killing them all.
When they pulled in the driveway, Beth got out of the car and bounced inside. Ben took a few seconds before opening the door, relief flooding through him. His mom spoke before he got out of the car.
“You did good, kid.”
“I still hate it.” That was putting it mildly. He’d rather take a puck to the face than drive a car. Reaching into the backseat, he grabbed the box and tucked it under his arm.
“I know you do. But you’re doing really well, I swear.”
Ryan drove up seconds later, pulling into the driveway just before they reached the front door. He must have been watching for them to drive by from his house, only a few doors down.
“Welcome home, Lewises!” Ryan bounded out of his car, grinning at Ben’s mom as she gave him a hug. “How’s it going, Mom?”
“Good. We’re tired and hungry. Grab a snack if you want. I know you two have plans.” She looked between them. “You’ll be careful, right?”
Ryan threw an arm around Ben’s neck. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep him out of trouble.” He gave an exaggerated sniff. “Dude, you stink.”
Ben pushed him away. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m going to go take a shower.” They all walked into the house, and Ryan made a beeline for the kitchen while Ben went to clean up.
“Wear something besides sweatpants!” Ryan shouted up the stairs after him, and Ben rolled his eyes.
He got to his room and put the box on his dresser, wondering if he had time to give it a quick look.
“Workout shorts count as sweatpants!”
Dammit. Probably not.
“I’ll wear what I want!” Ben gave the box a last look before grabbing some boxers out of the drawer. He dug a little more and threw a pair of jeans and a soft, worn V-necked tee on the bed. The tee was a bit snug in the shoulders now, but it was a comfortable favorite.
He could use the comfort; he wasn’t particularly looking forward to the party. There would be a lot of people there who he only kind of knew, and nobody who really knew him, except for Ryan. He’d much rather go see a movie or hang out at home. Ryan was really going to owe him.
He turned on the water to heat it up and stripped out of his sweaty clothes. The hot water felt good, and he took a minute to let it work on his aching muscles. He’d been careful. It was second nature, taking care with how he moved. He couldn’t afford to hurt himself doing something stupid like helping his Gran move boxes.
Ben had just finished drying off when he heard his bedroom door open. He pulled on his boxers and went to see what damage Ryan was doing.
“Nope.” Ryan snatched up the shirt from the bed and started to stuff it back in the drawer.
Ben made a grab for it. “There’s nothing wrong with it.” He yanked it out of Ryan’s hand and went looking for socks.
“Come on. At least wear something a little nicer.” Ryan was always giving him a hard time about living in old T-shirts and sweats. “It’s got holes in it, man.”
“So?” Ben’s voice was muffled as he tugged the shirt over his head. He’d perfected the art of getting dressed around other people a long time ago. The locker room either made you an exhibitionist or very creative. He pulled on his jeans and looked around for the balled up socks he’d tossed on the bed. They hit him on the head, and without looking, he flipped Ryan off.
“Whatever. Wear what you want.” Ryan sighed dramatically and fell back on the bed as Ben found his worn red Chucks. Ben flicked him on the ear. “Ow!”
“I thought you were in a hurry.” Ben grinned at him as he rolled off the bed and ducked out the door. They clattered down the stairs, pushing and shoving the entire way.
“Sorry, Mom!” Answering in unison, they waved as they headed out the door. They piled into Ryan’s hatchback, and Ryan backed out of the driveway with a confidence Ben envied. After riding in companionable silence for a few minutes, Ryan gave Ben a look out of the corner of his eye.
“So, um. About the party.”
Ben was instantly on alert. He should have known something was up from the whole thing with the shirt. “What about the party?”
Ryan kept his eyes forward on the road. “Marcus is going to be there.”
Ben absolutely did not squeak. “What? Why? Why would you do that?”
“Ben. Benny. We’re going to be seniors. It’s now or never.” Ryan glanced at him again. “You’ve been pining over him for how long now?”
“I am not pining!” Ben’s voice rose an octave. He took a deep breath. “I’m not—I don’t pine.” He would have punched Ryan in the shoulder if he wasn’t driving. “And who even says that?”
“Fine. You’ve had this dumb mopey crush on him for years. Happy?” Ryan glared at him. It was an old argument.
“No!” Ben crossed his arms over his chest and slouched in the car seat. “He doesn’t even know who I am.” He talked louder to drown out Ryan’s response. “And even if he did, it’s not like I could do anything about it.”
Ryan sighed and pulled into a parking lot. He put the car into park and turned toward him with narrowed eyes. “Why?”
Ben glared right back. He was getting a little irritated by the whole conversation. “Why what?”
“Why can’t you do anything about it?”
“You know why.” Ryan did know why. Ben had started noticing boys when they were younger, but he didn’t understand that what he was feeling was attraction until Marcus walked into his freshman English class. He’d seen Marcus around, had had a kind of nodding acquaintance with him through middle school. They were both Ryan’s friends, after all.
But on that first day at Westdale High School, it was like someone had flipped a switch. Ben was sure everyone could tell he’d just been hit with a sudden wave of attraction (or lust, or whatever the hell it was), and at the center of it all was a boy with bright-blue hair.
Marcus had changed his style over the summer. Ben would have never guessed in a million years that skinny jeans and ratty T-shirts would do it for him, but on Marcus they worked. He stood out now, and did it with confidence. That epiphany rattled Ben to the point that he couldn’t concentrate on anything else for the rest of the day. Ryan was still playing hockey with him at that point, and after watching Ben flub pass after pass in that afternoon’s practice, he finally asked him what was going on.
Ben hadn’t known what to say. Ryan was his best friend in the entire world, and he was afraid that telling him would push him away. Still, though, he somehow managed to stutter out the words, “I think I like boys,” and Ryan just said, “Okay,” like he already knew, and threw his arms around him in a hug.
Ben’s fourteen-year-old self had been grateful for Ryan’s fourteen-year-old self’s tight hug. It was exactly what he needed at that moment. Ben’s secret hadn’t torn them apart; if anything, it had brought them closer together. Last year, he’d let himself think that maybe that was the year he’d do something, that he’d tell his parents or his team mates. But he hadn’t been able to bring himself to do it.
Ben shook his head. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Ryan gave him an incredulous look. “It’s hard enough to get you to come to stuff like this as it is—god knows I’ve tried for years. Would you have if I’d told you?” Ben shrugged, but Ryan had a point. He probably would have made up some lame excuse and stayed home. He sank further into the seat.
Ryan worried about him—worried about what would happen when both of them went off to do whatever they were going to do after graduation. They’d both gotten a little buzzed on a few beers (more like two if he was being honest) at Ben’s family Memorial Day cookout, and Ryan had kind of spilled his guts a little. He just wanted Ben to be happy and have a life outside of hockey. The alternative was Ben shutting part of himself off because the sport he loved wasn’t accepting of who he wanted to date.
“Don’t be.” Ryan sighed and leaned his head against the window. “I should have told you.” He hesitated a little. “Even though I think he kind of likes you, too.”
“What?” Ben covered his face with his hands. It was too much to even think about. “Did he say something?”
“Not really. And before you say anything else, I only just figured it out.” Ryan’s laugh had Ben peeking through his fingers. “But I can tell, you know? And you know that I’d never out you. So talk to him. Okay?”
“I’ll—” Ben dropped his hands, knowing his face was bright red. “I’ll think about it.”
“That’s all I’m asking, all right?” Ryan’s grin faded. “You know I’d never push you—”
Ben snorted. “But?”
“But I love your dumb ass, and I want you to be happy.” Ryan threw up his hands. “And that is enough feelings for tonight. You okay with going to the party now? Or—” Ryan hesitated again. “I can take you home since I got you here under false pretenses.”
“Only you could make that sound like you lured me into a murder van.” Ben shook his head. “Let’s go to the party, asshole.”
Ryan whooped as they pulled back out of the parking lot.