"Is it true?"
Hayle St. James blinked and looked across the dinner table at his father. Anger and hatred washed across his father's normally stoic face. Hayle's stomach bottomed out, dread weighing him down. Alarm rushed through his veins as he processed his father's question and hoped he was wrong. "Is what true?" Hayle asked, swallowing around the lump in his throat.
"Don't play dumb with me boy!" Elliot St. James shouted, pounding his fist on the table. "You know what I'm talking about. You're the same as the Royce's oldest boy. An abomination!"
Fear settled in Hayle's chest, making breathing difficult. "I'm not an abomination," he replied, trying to keep the apprehension and pain from his voice.
"Are you one of those sex-craving deviants? An affront to God?" Elliot demanded. "Get down on your knees and swear you are not a homosexual--that the rumors I've heard are false."
"Being gay isn't wrong or evil," Hayle answered, hedging. He didn't want to admit to his father what he'd known since the beginning of puberty. His father's reaction was the reason he'd never came out to his family. Why he'd never planned on coming out to his family. Why only a handful of people knew the truth about his sexuality.
"It is a sin against God and nature," Elliot said. "Confess it and repent, or deny it, and we will forget about it."
Hayle stared at his father then turned his attention to his mother and his younger brother and sister. How easy would it be to deny the truth? To remain hidden, to keep the love and affection he had from his family. What would it cost him? Hayle squeezed his eyes shut. His lover's words came back to him. Never be ashamed of who you are, of who you love. Being gay isn't evil or wrong. If anything, it's different. Not wrong. Leife O'Neill had captured his heart and had won his trust. Praying he was making the right choice, Hayle shook his head. "No."
"No, you aren't gay. Good then you can stay away from--"
"No, I'm not evil. I won't confess to something that isn't wrong."
"You're making no sense boy," Elliot ground out, hatred and disgust evident.
Hayle took a deep breath. "I'm gay, not evil."
His mother gasped and his father's face turned red with rage. "You...how...what..." he sputtered.
"I'm gay. I've always been gay," Hayle said quietly. "I'm not evil or sex-craving. I simply prefer men over women."
"He can be fixed, can't he?" Hayle's ten-year-old sister Anya asked. "Can't he, dad? You can fix him."
"I'm not broken, Anya, I'm different," Hayle replied.
"Don't you speak to her! You'll corrupt her. Turn her from the church and the family," his father said before turning to his siblings. "Anya, Kyle, go to your rooms. Now!"
"God will fix you," Kyle said with all of the belief and confidence of a twelve-year-old as the pair left the kitchen.
"You will renounce it this instant!" Elliot demanded.
"Renounce it?" Hayle asked incredulously. "This isn't citizenship or religion. It's biology. My beliefs haven't changed. Nothing about me has changed. I'm still the same person I have always been."
"You will renounce this abomination or you will get out of my house! I will not have a sin against God in my house!"
"I am not a sin. I'm a person. I'm not evil or an abomination," Hayle exclaimed, standing. Why couldn't his family accept him? It wasn't as if he were serial killer or child molester or did drugs or alcohol.
"Get out of my house!" Elliot St. James yelled, leaping up from his seat, the chair clattering to the floor behind him. "If you don't straighten out and ask for forgiveness, you're no son of mine."
"I haven't done anything wrong," Hayle protested.
Pain shattered his face, taking his vision out of focus. The force of the blow sent him stumbling into the corner of the kitchen counter. Wood pierced his skin through his t-shirt. His dad stepped closer, trapping him. Blood trickled down his back as the countertop dug farther into his flesh.
"Elliot, stop!" his mother Laura screamed.
Hayle's hand covered his eye and cheekbone where his father had hit him. Hayle squeezed his eyes shut and slowly opened them. His world was crumbling. Hatred showed in his father's eyes as he turned and retreated to the living room.
"Give him a couple of hours to cool down. Pray about it, pray for God to rid you of this," his mother said. "How could you do this to him? To me?" She looked from him to the direction his father had gone.
"To you? Do you honestly think this is a choice?" Hayle asked. "Do you think I wanted this? That I haven't prayed to be straight? But I'm not. Nothing is going to change that. And I haven't done anything to you. I didn't renounce you, dad, the church, or anything else."
"You have to leave. I can't have him angry and hurt. And this," she waved a hand over him "needs to remain clear of Anya and Kyle. Go see the pastor. He will know what to do," Laura said, looking back to the living room.
"I'm not broken mom," Hayle said quietly.
"You need to leave. This is his house."
He stared after his mother. She hadn't changed physically, still the same dark hair pulled back in a long braid and hazel eyes, but they no longer held the comfort for him they once did. The beige walls of the kitchen and dining room with the black writing of scripture he'd once found reassuring and loving were now a source of pain. He'd done nothing wrong. He was exactly how God had made him. Why couldn't they see that?
Silently, he turned toward the kitchen door, pausing long enough to put his shoes on before leaving the only house he'd ever lived in. Warm summer air wrapped around him, doing nothing to ease the ache in his heart. Tears streamed down his cheeks unchecked. He pulled out his phone and quickly texted messages to his best friend Shane Royce and his boyfriend Leife. Brushing away the tears with the back of his hand, he walked down the street, out of the neighborhood and to the bus stop.
Ignoring the other passengers on the bus, he stared out the window, wondering if he'd ever see his family again. Images and memories swirled around him, fragmented and stripped of his family's love, taking away the future he'd planned. His stomach clenched and rolled. He'd graduated from high school nearly a month ago, his open house had been planned for this coming weekend and he'd been ready to start at the community college in the fall. In one moment, everything had been destroyed.
He shook his head. Why couldn't he have denied it? Why couldn't he have continued to live a lie to please his family, at least until he was out of college? Love. He loved Leife. Seven years Hayle's senior, he'd met the older man last summer when he'd gone camping with several of his friends three weeks before his eighteenth birthday. They had talked almost every day since. Hayle had been pleasantly surprised to learn that Leife had just moved to the other side of the same city. They'd gone on their first date in early September, only kissing in private. Six months after his birthday, four days before Christmas, Leife had taken him out to dinner and a movie and followed it with a night of lovemaking. Hayle surrendered his virginity to his lover and was forever grateful to Shane for covering for him.
The bell on the bus dinged, pulling him from his thoughts. He looked up and swore, momentarily panicking that he'd overshot his stop as people exited the vehicle. Once moving again, he took the scenery in and gauged where he was before he signaled for the bus to stop. Stepping off the bus, he made his way to The Bard's Cafe, his favorite coffee shop in the city of New Athens. Paying tribute to Shakespeare, the walls were covered in quotes, playbills, book covers and movie posters. Actors, poets, writers and musicians often hung out there.
The patrons and management were open-minded and left people alone unless some law was being violated. Shane had found it shortly after their camping trip and had dragged him along, telling him it was also a place for good boys to find decent men. Hayle had never bothered looking for a date there. He had the only man he wanted. Leife wasn't his first love, but he was damn certain the man was his true love. Ordering a hot chai latte, he waited for his drink then found a booth near the back of the restaurant. He forced a smile and waved back to people he recognized when they said something, keeping conversations short. He wasn't up for polite conversation or political or philosophical discussions on magic, religion, or any number of other topics.
Customers came in and out, laughing and joking, ignorant of his personal hell. Hayle watched them with envy. Doubt ate at him. What if his friends didn't show? His family couldn't stand him. Maybe his friends would let him down too. What would he do if they didn't come? Would he go home? Should he go home? Pulling out his cell, he tried to call Leife. The words on the screen answered some of his questions. His dad had deactivated his phone. Home was no longer an option.
The bell above the door tinkled once again and he ignored it. The longest and worst day of his life was also the longest day of the year. The summer solstice, the day when the magic of nature would be at its strongest and the veil separating the worlds would be its thinnest. He'd kept his interest and knowledge of magic a secret, telling his parents the books he'd checked out of the library were for school projects.
Curiosity had started as a school assignment and had led to many conversations with his aunt. She patiently answered his questions, taught him what she knew and took him to classes at her favorite new age shop. She was his dad's older sister and the two of them rarely spoke. Their views on religion, faith, politics and a variety of social issues caused too much tension for anything more than brief get-togethers at the holidays. Thoughts collided in his brain. Maybe God was punishing him for his interest in magic and nature. Maybe he had done something in another life, and this was karma repaying him, costing him everything. Fresh tears streamed down his cheeks. He should be embarrassed, crying at his age, but he was past the point of caring.
Maybe Leife would have other plans for tonight because he'd said no. Hayle knew it was an important day for his lover. They'd talked about the summer solstice, and the role it played in Leife's life, and how his family had kept the day special, spending it with those to whom they were closest. He was supposed to see Leife tomorrow. His lover had been insistent about going out tonight--spending the night with him--but he'd been afraid of what his parents would say. What they would think. Now it didn't matter, and he hoped he wasn't too late.
"Hayle, love, what's going on?"
Hayle looked up into jade green eyes swirling with concern and stood. Leife set a black helmet on the table, ran a hand through his shoulder-length light brown hair, opened his arms and welcomed him. Hayle walked into them. Once the strong arms banded around him, the emotional torrent he'd been fighting to hold in broke free. Tears stung as they made their way down his cheeks. He stayed surrounded by Leife until he could pull himself together. He'd lost so much. He didn't want to lose this too.
"Holy shit! What happened to you?" Leife demanded, he pulled away slightly, grabbed Hayle's chin and moved it so he could see one side of his face. "Who did this?"
He'd almost forgotten about his dad hitting him. The physical pain hadn't completely dissipated, but it was overwhelmed by everything else he was feeling. He reached up, gently touching the area with his fingertips. Hayle imagined there was a large bruise where he'd been hit.
"My dad. I...I...he--"
"Shh, it's okay, love. Take your time. I'm here, I'm not going anywhere."
Hayle nodded and wanted to bury his face in Leife's chest. An action his lover refused to allow.
"What happened?" Leife asked, releasing his chin.
Taking a deep breath, Hayle lifted his head and kissed his lover.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Leife pressed.
"Not really, but I think I need to anyway," Hayle answered. Leife couldn't fix it, but he hoped he could reassure Hayle that he'd done the right thing.
"Tell me what happened," Leife said, sitting down next to him in the booth.
"My dad asked me if I was gay. I guess he'd heard something from someone."
"I take it you didn't deny it this time?"
Hayle shook his head. "I remembered what you said, about not being ashamed of who I am or whom I love, about not being evil. I couldn't deny the truth. Not this time."
"I see," Leife said, grabbing one of his hands.
"He called me an abomination. He...he kicked me out." Hayle relayed the argument to Leife, who kept one hand on him at all times, giving him strength, reassuring him that his entire world hadn't collapsed.
"When did he hit you?"
"After I said I wasn't a sin or an abomination."
"Oh baby," Leife said, pulling him closer. "I'm so sorry your dad did this to you and that you had to go through it. You did the right thing though. You stood up for yourself. You're not any of the things he said. You're beautiful and perfect the way you are."
"I lost my family, my home, my future," Hayle protested.
"I know it seems that way, baby." Leife dabbed a napkin on his cheek. "Does your aunt know? The one you keep talking about."
Hayle cocked his head to one side. "That I'm gay? Yes. She said she always knew and thanked me for trusting her enough to talk to her. What my dad did? No. She's probably going to be pissed."
"Then you still have some family. You have me. You'll create a new family with people who love and accept you. As for your future, it's changed, but not gone," Leife said firmly. "As advanced and tolerant as the world is becoming, some people will never learn acceptance."
"What am I going to do now? I don't have any place to live. I was working for my dad, so I don't have a job anymore, and I can't pay for college. I--"
"One thing at a time. For now, you can stay with me. I want you to move in with me anyway."
"This isn't weird for you? I mean I'm just out of high school."
"No, I'm twenty-five and not only that, I've had time to come to terms with it." Leife brought Hayle's hand to his lips and kissed the palm. It wasn't a total lie; his driver's license did say he was twenty-five. The fact that he was seven times that number had little bearing on his feelings or Hayle's importance to him. "I thought we went through this already."
"I know. It's just that my whole world just turned in on itself."
"Why don't we go up to my grandparent's place on North Star Lake for the weekend? Maybe some time away from the city will help," Leife suggested. "I know of a pretty good coffeehouse close to my apartment if you don't want to come back here."
"No more doubts, I want a chance at forever with you." Leife pressed a chaste kiss to his lips. "I only have my bike with me, but we should be able to get whatever you--"
Hayle swiped at his eyes and shook his head. "I didn't have a chance to get anything. I don't have any--"
"Shh. We'll take care of that."
Hayle chewed on his lip and nodded his agreement, wishing he felt half as confident as Leife was.
The bell above the door rang again, and instinctively Hayle looked up. He saw the tall, lithe frame of his best friend walking in. Hayle shook his head and waved. Not for the first time did his mind wander over the two of them. Shane was tall, where he was short. Shane had blond hair that was never out of place, where his rebellious short brown hair never seemed to lie down. They were both swimmers, with a healthy appetite for running, but genetics gave Shane more muscle than Hayle had. For all their differences, Shane's mom still called them two peas in a pod. They'd been best friends the first day of middle school.
"I got here as soon as I could. What's going on?" Shane asked, crossing over to them.
"My dad kicked me out."
"What in the hell for?" Shane asked sitting down opposite from them.
"He asked if I was gay," Hayle replied, entwining his fingers with Leife's.
"And you told him?" Shane asked incredulously.
"And you think he shouldn't have?" Leife demanded.
"Yes, because his family is a bunch of narrow-minded buffoons," Shane answered.
"So he should ignore the truth? Be ashamed of who he is and who he loves?"
"No, but he--"
"He is sitting right here!" Hayle shouted. "I didn't volunteer the information. I just decided not to lie anymore. I was miserable. It's not like I have parents that accept me or could go away to college where I can get all the sex I want. I love my family, Shane. I wanted my family to love me unconditionally, to still love me even if they didn't like my lifestyle. I knew they would disapprove and probably kick me out, but I didn't expect them to hate me. They truly hate me." Hayle squeezed his eyes shut to stop more tears and leaned into the arm wrapped around his shoulder. "They looked at me like I was evil incarnate."
"I've asked Hayle to spend the weekend at my grandparent's cabin with me," Leife said firmly.
"That's great for the weekend, but what about the rest of the time? What about school? Work?" Shane demanded.
"I'm moving in with Leife. I can still go to school, but--"
"How? Even the community college can be expensive."
"I will help him. There are loans, scholarships, and financial aid he can apply for," Leife answered. "The important thing is that he goes."
"I guess now I can go to school for what I want instead of what my dad wanted," Hayle said, laughing half-heartedly.
"There is that. I know how much you were looking forward to working with him," Shane said disapproval hanging from every word.
"I was, I just didn't want him to make every decision for me," Hayle replied. "Excuse me."
Leife nodded, squeezed his hand and moved to let him out.