“Where’s Jay? Is he okay?” asked Liam as he rushed through the dorm apartment door. The group was standing by the bathroom door in the hallway. The all stared at him as he appeared breathless and his face etched with concern. The fall of their Junior year they scored a three-bedroom dorm apartment for all of them, under the pretense that Bethie would have one room and the four boys would split the other two. Jay’s father was under the falsehood that Jay was living in the Junior dorms, in a single room. “What happened?” Liam’s face wore the tense expression of worry as he looked from one face to the other.
Bethie shook her head. “I don’t know. He came back from class, mumbling. He was acting odd and then locked himself in the bathroom. The showers been running for thirty minutes now.”
Liam knocked on the door. “Jay, babe. It’s Liam. Can I come in?”
“I passed him on the quad earlier,” said Mac. “He was talking to some professor looking guy. Not sure from what class. Wasn’t anyone I recognized, but I don’t take the same classes as he does. He looked fine then.”
Liam knocked again. “Jay, let me in.”
It was fall semester, and as promised Jay returned to school after being away for the entire summer. The day he returned was a cause for celebration. Everyone sat together on the floor of the apartment living room, surrounded by boxes, surfboards and bags of supplies and groceries. Two opened boxes of pizza rested in the center of their circle. The exuberance coming off Jay was infectious. They were busting with laughter telling tales of their summer antics on the water, at work and camping. Jay took it all in with wide eyes, laughing hysterically as Mac recounted the story of the spider who hitched a ride from the Adirondack mountains, the sixteen-hour drive back to the Surf and Sun and ended up in a customer’s vanilla milkshake. “I swear the woman woke the dead with her shrieks, dancing around like she was being attacked. No one bothered to tell her it froze the damn thing.” Mac got up and mimicked the woman’s dance of terror. Jay fell over, tears of amusement running down his cheeks.
When the evening wound down, Judah and Bethie were putting away dishes and kitchen ware while Mac hung tapestries and posters of swimsuit models in his room, Liam and Jay stretched out on the floor together. Liam wove his fingers through Jay’s and felt the notable tension in his muscles. “How are you?”
Jay kept his eyes focused on the ceiling. Tears slid from the corners of his eyes. “So much better now. I missed you immensely.”
“Was it that bad?” Liam’s heart was splintering in tiny razor sharp shards.
“It doesn’t matter what it was, Liam. I managed and now I’m back, right where I belong, with you and our friends.”
Liam rolled to his side and pulled Jay in close. His body stiffened and Liam withdrew. For a split second in time, he didn’t believe Jay. He wasn’t back, not the Jay that left months ago. “I missed you, Jay. If you want, if you need to, and when you’re ready, you can talk to me.”
Jay scrambled to his feet. “There’s nothing to discuss.” He clapped his hands and dismissed the entire conversation, opting to help move furniture into place and engage in an impromptu game of beer Pong.
Liam let it go. It was their first night back together. He would not force any issues. Jay would come to him when he was ready. That night was three months ago. It was November now, and Jay was still a fortress anytime the topic came up.
“Jay?” Liam was sitting by the door. His knees pulled up to his chest. His ear pressed to the wood. Bethie sat next to the wall beside her brother. Mac had to be to class and Judah was at work, but he texted Bethie several times to check on the status of the situation.
“Maybe we should call the medical center?” he texted.
Bethie flashed the screen to Liam, and he shook his head. “Just give him some time.”
She tapped in the response to Judah.
“Jay, come on. We’re worried. Mac says he’s coming back with a hammer and screwdriver to take the hinges off the door. We’ll lose our deposit.” Liam gave a small laugh. “Not to mention showering with no door for the rest of the semester. No one needs to see Mac shower.”
Bethie rolled her eyes and shivered. “No.” She looked at her brother. “Can you still hear him?” she whispered. They both went silent and listened. The water shut off. “That’s a good sign, right?” she asked.
Liam nodded, feeling a sense of relief that Jay was at least conscious. “Jay?”
The door creaked open. Bethie and Liam both got to their feet, holding their breath, waiting to see what would emerge after all this time. Jay stood in the doorway, drenched from head to toe, fully dressed in the outfit he wore that morning and shivering.
“Oh my God,” Bethie gasped. Liam pushed past a motionless Jay and grabbed two bath towels. He draped one over Jay’s shoulders and then proceeded to rub the second over Jay’s wet head. Jay stood dripping on the bathroom tiles, his limbs stiff as his body trembled.
“Come on, Jay. Let’s get you out of these clothes. You’re freezing. Bethie make some tea or coffee, something hot.” Liam guided Jay to their shared room. Jay’s feet shuffled in steps that appeared to be laborious, like moving took far more energy than he could muster. “What’s going on? Talk to me, please.”
A raspy sob, gurgled from Jay’s throat. Bethie put a kettle on to boil and opened a can of soup. She texted Judah and Mac. “Liam’s got him. He’s with Liam.”
When the soup and tea were hot enough, Beth carried a tray to the bedroom door. She tapped the surface with her elbow. Liam’s voice came to her, soft and low. “Come in.”
Jay was curled up on his bed, his body in the fetal position, wrapped in towels and blankets. A pile of sopping wet clothes lay on the floor. She rested the tray on the bedside table. Her eyes found Liam’s and conveyed her concern and questions without words. Liam shook his head and shrugged. Bethie picked up the clothing, walked into the hallway, and closed the door behind her. She wished Judah was there, but it was Mac who returned to the apartment first.
“Is he okay? What did he say? What happened?” Mac must have run back as soon as he finished his class. He was out of breath and sweating. Bethie told him the whole scene. Mac looked towards the closed bedroom door. “Should I try to talk to him?”
“I don’t think so. Liam is still in there with him. He hasn’t said anything, yet. Oh Mac, I don’t understand. What could have happened? Do you think someone attacked him, like a hate crime or something?” Bethie curled her feet up under her on the living room futon, a fluffy throw pillow hugged in her lap. She bit at her fingernails until Mac took her hand to stop her and sat down next to her.
“I don’t know. I mean I’ve seen him go into these funks in the past.”
Bethie nodded, knowing Jay could be moody.
“But nothing like this. Something happened, something bad.” Mac wrapped his arm around her and together they waited.
Two hours later, they both awoke to the sound of a door opening and closing. Judah was standing in the entryway, a strange look on his face. Bethie got up off the futon and ran to him, hugging him close and letting her tears flow, her emotions raw. Judah held her and glared at a groggy Mac. “What’s going on?”
Mac sat upright and scrubbed the sleep from his face. He looked to Liam and Jay’s bedroom door. “They’re still in there. We were just waiting, giving them some time.”
Liam heard the muffled voices and movement from the bedroom. The door opened and three sets of eyes were on him. He eased the door shut slowly until it clicked closed. “He’s asleep. Is there any coffee?” he asked in a hushed, exhausted tone.
“I’ll make a fresh pot,” said Bethie, while the three boys gathered around the kitchen island.
“Did he say anything?” Mac was gathering coffee mugs, cream and sugar. Bethie set out spoons, cringing at the clinking of silverware. It was so quiet, the sound sounded like exploding glass. She winced.
“From what I can sort out,” Liam began in a low voice. His eyes darted toward the bedroom door several times. “He was caught off guard by someone that knows his father. Maybe it was the guy you saw him with. Mac. I don’t know.”
Mac lifted his eyebrows, but his fingers tightened to white knuckles around the handle of his mug, while Bethie poured the coffee. “Is the guy a regular on campus?”
“What does that matter?” asked Judah.
“It matters, because if I see him again I’ll know where to land my fist.”
“Mac,” Bethie whispered.
“This guy upsets our friend to the point of... of I don’t know what, insanity, and you don’t think we should confront him?”
Liam shook his head. “I get it, Mac. I’d like to have a conversation with him as well, but I don’t think that will help Jay.”
Judah nodded, sipping his coffee.
“Jay seems to think he was checking in. The guy mentioned something about the camp Jay stayed at and asked how his ‘affirmations’ were going. He mumbled something about gender guidance. Then he went silent again.” Liam shook his head. “I wish he’d tell me what took place there. I know it’s hurting him more than he’s letting on. What the hell is ‘gender guidance’? Jay doesn’t want to be a woman for Pete’s sake. I wish we could do something, help him.”
“I agree,” Judah finally said. “But Jay needed help before this summer.”
“Excuse me?” Liam snapped, offended.
“Not like that, Liam. You know I don’t disagree with yours or anyone else’s choices, gay, straight, pan, anti... any of it. I’m saying he has a roller coaster for emotions, a lot of highs and some long lasting lows. This summer didn’t help. I’m one hundred and ten percent sure of that. The kids trying to live one way for his dad and his dad’s way of thinking and a completely opposite way for himself, that’s gotta be hell to deal with. Like juggling cannon balls while walking on a high wire.”
“Yeah, I get that, but he has the four of us to talk with.” Mac interjected.
“He’s too close to us. He’s afraid to hurt us, as much as he wants to please his father.”
“How could he be hurting us?” asked Bethie. “He’s the sweetest soul we know.”
Judah looked at her and put his arm around her shoulder. “By telling us what really took place this summer. Places like those aren’t there to provide summer day camp activities. They weren’t building Popsicle stick castles and singing camp song around the fire. They were working on making Jay see the error of his ways.”
“What? What errors? That he should love the opposite sex because that’s what their eff’d up organized bullshit tells them?” Mac’s voice raised. “I knew we should have put a stop to it. We should have marched right down to that bloody camp and kidnapped him, all of them.”
Bethie wiped at her eyes. “So what do we do?”
“We get him the right kind of help. A counselor he can open up to. One he will feel safe with and not judged.”
Mac looked at Judah with his jaw hanging. “So you do think he and Liam are going about this wrong?”
“No,” snapped back Judah. “I’m saying he has some things he needs to work through with a professional so he can accept who he is fully and not keep on the roller coaster trying to please everyone else.”
Liam sat silent, taking in the entire conversation.