Awake and Dreaming
Aiden Metzler swallowed with difficulty, a lump sitting heavily in his throat. His heart felt like lead in his chest. He could feel tears prick his eyes. He’d always had a nervous stomach, but this time, all he could feel was cold dread clawing through his insides as he took a deep breath to try and keep those tears at bay.
“It’s okay,” Kellen said, the watery quality of his voice betraying how not okay it really was. He reached up as if to put a hand on Aiden’s cheek, but hesitated, shuffling his feet awkwardly. Aiden felt his heart fall further; he’d never seen Kellen hesitate like that around him.
Kellen cleared his throat, but his voice cracking when he opened his mouth. “I get it, Aiden. You… you can’t date a guy right now. With your dad and all your brothers and your baseball. I… I understand. You… can’t be gay.”
The words came out of his throat like they were ripped out painfully. That sad smile and resigned tone might as well have been Kellen’s hand reaching right into Aiden’s chest to rip his heart out.
They’d been together for almost a year now, dating in secret. They’d shared secrets Aiden would never tell anyone else. They’d laughed and studied together. They’d slept together too. When Aiden woke up with Kellen in his arms, breathing softly in the early morning hours, the thought of breaking up never crossed his mind. All he’d been able to think about was how adorable Kellen was when he blinked open his eyes.
He’d been happy. Then reality came crashing in with the end of their senior year approaching.
“That’s not…” Aiden tried to say, but he couldn’t get any words out. He sighed, his shoulders slumping. He was the one who told Kellen that they couldn’t be together anymore. He had no right to defend himself.
But Kellen prompted him gently, his voice soft and sweet. “That’s not what?”
“I… I still love you,” Aiden settled on, his voice cracking uncomfortably.
He chanced a look up at Kellen, and that was when his heart literally broke. Aiden couldn’t handle it when people cried. He never knew what to do. But seeing Kellen cry, Kellen, the guy who was always smiling, laughing, and dancing, seeing that guy cry, was worse than anything he could imagine.
Kellen wiped his eyes furiously, huffing with a humorless chuckle. “Don’t make this harder on me, honey,” he said, the old pet name slipping out affectionately, “Come on, I’m trying to be a good person here,” he pleaded, “I know you can’t just be you for now. If you ever can… I’ll be here.” His voice was pleading yet loving. It was filled with all those emotions they weren’t supposed to feel for one another anymore.
Aiden relished in the feeling of Kellen’s hand on his cheek as the taller boy kissed his opposite cheek softly. As a goodbye.
When Kellen pulled back, he searched his backpack for a second, pulling out a bottle and placing it in Aiden’s hands. “Your stomach’s probably hurting, right?” Kellen asked, his voice still filled with tears. He wrapped Aiden’s hand around the bottle of medicine and with a final squeeze and a smile that Aiden would never be able to forget, he let go.
That smile was burned into his memory, the image blending in with the scuffing of Kellen’s footsteps, the smooth bottle in Aiden’s hands, and the salty tears that finally flowed down his face.
Aiden woke up suddenly, feeling disoriented. It was always like this when he dreamed about Kellen. It was like waking up with a ghost: he could almost feel the man in his arms again before that warmth was ripped away and reality set back in.
Aiden yawned and stretched, his shirt sliding up to reveal his toned stomach. It had been a while since he’d last had a dream with Kellen in it. Back when they’d first broken up, Aiden had them all the time. Some of them featured Kellen crying again, while others had Aiden waking up feeling hot and bothered.
Either way, the dreams didn’t happen too often anymore. Seven years of being broken up and not talking to one another tended to do that. He supposed some part of his brain just didn’t get the memo.
Aiden ran a hand through his hair and heard his shoulder pop. He groaned. He was twenty-four, but sometimes he felt like he was on his way to fifty. Baseball was his passion, but pitching balls at ninety miles an hour wasn’t necessarily easy on the body.
Despite that, he couldn’t help the smile that broke out on his face. No amount of popping shoulders, heart-crushing dreams of his ex, or alarm clocks with annoying red numbers blinking at him could dampen his mood.
That reminded him: Aiden clicked off his clock a few minutes before it went off. His hand paused for a moment, an old memory from high school resurfacing suddenly. Kellen had always given him this disgruntled look when he got up before the clock went off.
He groaned; that dream must have scrambled his brain. Sure, he thought about Kellen every now and again, but it wasn’t like him to dwell on their time together so much anymore.
Whatever, it didn’t matter. Nothing was going to get him down today because today was the day. Aiden was going home to see his family for the holidays after his first season as a professional baseball player. His smile grew wider, thinking of the excited voice of his mother on the phone after his first televised game. The woman may have not cared too much about baseball in general, but she easily drowned out Aiden’s father and two brothers with her support. That was a feat considering how rowdy they all were.
Aiden jumped out of bed, already awake and energized as he zipped around his apartment. Ten minutes later and he was stepping out of his shower with a towel around his waist and his short black hair slicked back with water.
As he brushed his teeth, he took a look at himself in the mirror. Aiden figured he was pretty good-looking. Muscular, toned form, looked good in the tight pants he wore for games. Women seemed to think so too with all the offers he’d gotten over the years, but admittedly, Aiden tended to like his partners with flat chests. Or just pecks. Or you know, male.
He was gay, okay? That just made it even more tragic when a cute guy came up to talk to him, but only recognized him from a game and was definitely not flirting.
Aiden huffed at himself. No one knew he was gay, no one except…
Nope, not going there. The high school boyfriend who shall hereafter remained unnamed was the only person who had known that he was gay, and Aiden had resolved not to think about him for now. Otherwise he would end up drowning in those thoughts and missing his flight.
His flight! Aiden’s eyes widened as he got himself in gear. He’d gotten up early for this flight just so his father could grab him from the airport. It would defeat the purpose of surprising his mother by showing up for the winter holidays if he missed his flight and had to call his father in the middle of the night.
Having all his stuff already shipped made it tough to move quickly though. Aiden kept looking for things only to see that they weren’t in the right place or that he was tripping over random things that still needed to go into his suitcase.
Aiden was moving back to the East Coast to be closer to his parents. Not too close, because let’s face it, his parents could get a little overbearing at times, but in the city about an hour away. His brothers were in the city too, so it all worked out. He just had to be sure to give his key back to his landlord, get all his stuff packed, and actually get to the airport on time.
That involved throwing everything he could into his suitcase, lifting it a few times and hoping it was under the weight limit, and doing a quick run through of the apartment. After dropping off the air mattress and hangers that he’d promised to his neighbor, Aiden was off.
It was still strange to have people recognize him in public. Aiden had been playing in college and the minors since he left high school, but he’d never been watched by so many people before. It was both exhilarating and somehow awkward when someone yelled his name and he had a moment wondering if he’d forgotten who they were before he realized they were a fan.
God, Aiden hoped he never got to the point where he started forgetting people. He liked to think that he was humble and that he would remain humble, but it could be pretty easy to be an asshole without ever realizing it. He had personal experience being an asshole and realizing it at the same time, so he hoped he would know the difference.
With that depressing thought, Aiden smiled his way through the odd interactions he had at the airport. His stomach was starting to squeeze up a little bit; he’d never gotten over his problems with nerves. At this point in his life, he figured he never would.
But if he got through his first Major League game after throwing up in the locker room and managed to smile at press conferences when it felt like someone punched him in his stomach, Aiden was certain that he could get through a plane ride in some too-small seats and with minimal snacks.
He supposed he could have chosen to fly first-class, but Aiden was a simple man at heart. He never knew what to do with money now that he had it. The best he could think of was to send his little niece, Nikki, nice gifts every year for her birthday, and to fly down to see her as much as she could. Aiden cracked a smile. Nikki may have only been seven this year, but that girl easily got both of his brothers and his dad to do anything she wanted. She was too smart for all of them.
Aiden smiled at the thought of her, watching the clouds outside of the window until the plane landed. He rushed off. A smile broke out on his face. His heart was beating excitedly in his chest. His stomach was clenching nervously, but the good type of nerves this time.
With his bag slung over his shoulder and that smile still on his face, Aiden practically rushed past security to meet his father standing there waiting for him.
“Dad…!” he called, rushing up to embrace his father with a hearty pat on the back.
“Aiden,” his father replied warmly, a deep chuckle reverberating through his chest. He pushed Aiden back slightly to hold him at arm’s length, his hands on Aiden’s shoulders. “Oh, my youngest son. Let me look at you. It’s been years since you’ve been home.”
“I know, dad,” Aiden said with a sad smile. He could see the longing in his dad’s eyes. The man wasn’t that old, but his black hair had streaks of grey in it now. The laugh lines were more prominent around his eyes and mouth. In the end though, he was still his dad.
“None of that,” his dad admonished. “You’re a professional baseball player now!”
There was that wonder in his voice that always accompanied anything having to do with his baseball career. Aiden’s biggest fan, besides his mom, was his dad. He was the one who took Aiden to games as a kid, who taught him how to swing a bat. It had been rough not having the time to see his dad over the past few years.
Aiden just chuckled at his dad, who of course wouldn’t let Aiden carry his bag on his own. His mom would have done the same thing. The woman was thin and small, but Aiden had no doubt that she could muscle any grown man out of the way when it came to her kids.
“So, your brothers are coming over too, but I didn’t tell them that you’d be here. Ian is bringing along Nikki, but Letta has to work. So does Lyla, so it’ll be your brothers, your mom, and Nikki. You’ll probably never get time away from your brothers once they learn you’ll be in the city,” his dad chuckled as they walked along. “Well, once you have a girlfriend, I’m sure your brothers will give you some privacy. Or not. You know how they are.”
Aiden chuckled humorlessly, looking away. It was pathetic. He was twenty-four and still hadn’t told his parents that he was gay. His dad told him all the time that he didn’t have to find the right girl soon, or that it was okay to play the field a bit, and his brothers latched on. Aiden’s only saving grace was his mother, who blissfully, and somewhat oddly, never brought up the idea of a girlfriend. Maybe she’d given up hope for him. He didn’t know if that was worse than his dad’s and brothers’ curiosity.
It was easy to distract his dad with stories about his games. The man wanted to know everything. Aiden felt like he’d been talking for the entire hour ride home by the time they finally pulled up to his parents’ old house.
Aiden took a deep breath, almost feeling nervous for no real reason at all. This was the house he grew up in. He knew the buildings around here like the back of his hand. It would just be his mom and his brothers inside with his niece.
But there were memories of a lot of other people sitting inside that house too. Every time he came home, Aiden couldn’t help but to feel a spark of melancholy. This time was no different.
He pushed those thoughts aside as his dad motioned for him to go around the back. Aiden rolled his eyes with a fond smile, sneaking around the side of the house. He’d done this so many times when he was in high school that he could have avoided the windows and walked the yard in the dark without tripping over any plants or hedges or getting caught up in the snow. Back then, he’d been hushing Kellen to get the other boy to stop laughing. Aiden could almost hear those chuckles again as he bypassed the ledge that he used to climb up and instead arrived at the back door.
He could hear everyone talking inside. There was Ian, his oldest brother, married to Letta and with their daughter, Nikki. Ian had always been the responsible one out of the three of them with a surprisingly dry sense of humor and no qualms about being straightforward with people. Then there was Isaac, the middle kid who was dating Lyla, won people over with his smile and personality, and liked to crack jokes. Those two were hard enough to handle, but with Aiden and their dad in the mix too, it was a wonder that his mother remained sane.
Aiden shivered slightly in the snow as he waited for the right time to interrupt. His ears perked up when heard his dad open the front door and yell out, “I’m back! Brought a surprise for everyone!” It was Isaac who asked, “Is this another surprise like the time you got mom a level for her birthday because she ‘keeps the household level’ or some nonsense like that?”
Aiden could almost hear his mother rolling her eyes. “That’s not even the worst thing he got me. But I’m sure you stopped to look at some tools or sport thing from how long it took you,” Aiden heard his mother say flippantly. “As long as you didn’t buy something too expensive that I’ll make you return, more power to you.”
It was impossible not to love his mother. Quietly, Aiden tried to stomp his feet outside to get some of the snow off. Everyone was in the kitchen and dining area, right where the back door opened up to. It took some real skill to turn the handle so no one heard him right away as Aiden slowly pushed it open, right as his dad said, “I think you’ll like this surprise a lot more.”
Aiden knew that his mother was preparing snarky rebuttal, a well-deserved one considering his dad’s horrific gift-giving streak, when she turned to see what was going on.
“Aiden!” the blonde yelped, rushing over to engulf him in a hug. He’d outgrown his mother years ago, yet she somehow surrounded him with her simple presence whenever she embraced him.
With the strength of a bear belying her thin form, his mom wrapped her arms around him tightly, saying, “Oh, you didn’t say you were coming home!” She pulled back to touch his face softly as if to reassure herself that he was actually there.
“What the—” Isaac started, but stopped when Ian smacked him on the back of his blonde head. Out of the three of them, he was the only one who was blonde like their mother. “Hey, if I curse, Nikki’s not even in the room right now!” he defended.
Ian rolled his eyes. With that scowl on his face and the dark hair, he could have been an angrier version of their father. “It’s been seven years and you still can’t stop cursing in front of her.”
“It’s fudging hard to switch to non-curse words,” Isaac emphasized on purpose. “Besides, it’s not even that much. I told her not to say those words.”
Ian looked at him funny. “What words did you teach her?” He looked to Nikki who reentered from the bathroom, primly patting down her jeans and adjusting her tiny top. “What words did your Uncle Isaac teach you, baby?” The tone was softer and less accusatory, but Nikki only smiled like an angel.
“Nothing special, dad. But even if he did, I can’t say them out loud you know,” she said simply, messing with her brown ponytail. The picture of innocence. If Ian ever had more kids, Nikki could easily manipulate them all to do her bidding.
Ian looked like he could sleep for a week and it still wouldn’t be enough. He jumped when Nikki screamed excitedly and ran to jump into Aiden’s arms when she noticed him. “Uncle Aiden!”
“Hey, kiddo,” he said happily, picking her up easily.
She wrapped her little arms around his neck and smiled toothily. “Uncle Aiden, you’re back!”
“Yeah, why is that again?” Isaac asked, feigning nonchalance but unable to stop the smile from breaking out on his face.
Aiden bounced Nikki on his hip for a moment before setting her down. The little girl latched onto his leg, leaning on him. “I can’t come home to visit my family during the holidays?” he shot back happily, placing a hand on Nikki’s head.
Ian was smiling at the sweet interaction between his daughter and Aiden, but said with a dry smirk, “Not when it’s been a few years on and off. Come on, what’s this about?”
There was an excitedly tense pause as Aiden took a deep breath. “Actually… I’m moving to the city.”
The response was predictable. Aiden didn’t think he’d heard his mom scream that loud in a while, and of course, his niece followed suit. Both of his older brothers embraced him heartily. So did his dad, even though he’d known for a while now.
The house was filled with warm chatter. Aiden had gotten used to the silence over the years, living in apartments and dorms all alone. He had his teammates, sure, but it was never the same as his family. There was something comforting about this, about being back with the people who knew him not as a professional ball player but just as Aiden Metzler. They didn’t know everything about him, no, but really, it was one tiny detail that he was keeping from them.
Well, okay, being gay wasn’t a tiny detail, and he didn’t exactly tell them all about his secret relationship in high school with Kellen… But really, those were the only two things. They didn’t need to hear about those secrets anyway. When they knew, Aiden worried that they wouldn’t see him the same way anymore. It had been so long now since he knew he was gay. How would he even bring it up randomly?
Honestly, Aiden didn’t have a clue. It didn’t matter anyway. He was happy with his life. He got the chance to play in the big leagues. He met lots of new people. He was okay financially. There was nothing he should be sad about.
Yet when he laughed with his brothers, he knew it wouldn’t last. They would have their significant others with them and Aiden would be the fifth wheel like he always was. It was a selfish thought, but he was glad the girls hadn’t been able to come to the house on the day he’d flown in. For that one day, he could pretend like it was he and his brothers again.
Aiden could pretend that he wasn’t so lonely up until he lay in bed that night, staring up at the ceiling with his eyes wide open. Silence descended upon him. His heart clenched, but before he could wallow in his own loneliness, he forced himself to close his eyes and rest.
For that first night back, Aiden was glad that he was so tired that he slept without dreaming.