As a thank you to everyone who has put up with my highs and lows, I’m giving you all the full first chapter of Teach Me, my upcoming m/m novel. The release date is set for December 2nd, but you never know if it’ll come out a little earlier!
Somehow, I knew it would come to this. As the hands on the clock creep closer to eight, I resign myself to the fact that I am alone. All day, I’ve been forced to listen to families reunite at the end of the school year while trying to hold onto a shred of hope that my father hasn’t managed to turn everyone in my family against his disappointment of a son. Apparently he has.
I start rifling through the totes I’ve spent the past week packing to determine what is and isn’t essential. Had I been honest with myself sooner, I would have done this as I packed so I could make a hasty escape when reality slapped me in the face.
I take my time rolling and stuffing as many clothes as possible into my backpack and the duffel bag typically used for weekend trips. There’s easily a thousand dollars’ worth of clothes left in the clear plastic containers that I could have taken to one of the consignment shops if I had thought of it sooner. In hindsight, putting all of this crap on Craigslist would have been smart; at least then I would have had a bit of a nest egg going into the summer.
With my two bags, a laptop and my cell phone which hasn’t worked in over two months in hand, I turn back at the door, taking one last look at the life I’m probably leaving behind for good. It’s the end of an eye-opening year; some of it good, some of it bad, and a little bit downright ugly. I’d like to think I’ll come out of this a stronger man than I am today, but it’s hard to stay optimistic when you come to the realization that everything you’ve been told your entire life is a fucking lie.
“Austin, you have to have everything out by eight,” the uptight resident assistant reminds me as he passes my open door. Right now, I hate him. His parents carried all of his crap down to their pretentious SUV while he spent the day reminding everyone of the policies that have been tacked on every bulletin board and sent in numerous emails over the past month. His family will be waiting for him at five after eight, probably so they can take him out to dinner to celebrate the end of another wonderful school year.
“Yep, got everything right here,” I tell him as I pull the door shut to keep him from looking past me. Knowing my luck, he’ll start asking questions I don’t have answers to and that’s the last thing I need. “As soon as I check out, I’ll be out of your hair. Have a good summer.”
“You too, Austin,” he responds without the same prickly tone from a few moments ago.
Fat chance, but thanks. I don’t say this out loud, of course, since that would lead to questions or yet another person telling me that it might not be as bad as I’m anticipating. Although I already miss Eric, my roommate from this year, I’m glad he left as soon as his last final of the semester was turned in. I’m not sure I could have handled the pity in his eyes if he saw me today. Plus, he is one of those people who is perpetually optimistic and I’m sick of hearing his pep talks on a daily basis. Given the mood I’m in right now, I would likely take out my frustration on him because he’s the one who somehow made me keep hoping that my parents would come around.
Rather than head right to the bank of elevators, I turn left toward the fire exit. Taking the stairs is going to suck with this much weight on my back, but the alternative is waiting who knows how long for the elevator with my classmates and their families. I’m really not in the mood to listen to them recap the school year and talk about what amazing trips they have planned for the summer.
Outside is more of the same chaos; families trying to cram everything into their vehicles, friends saying goodbye to one another, basically the world’s way of dishing up one big middle finger to me. No one even notices the kid walking toward the lake with nothing but a bag on his back and one in his hands.
When I first moved to town, I loved the fact that my dorm was only a block from Lake Mendota. Late at night, I would follow the bike trail away from the crowds gathered on the terrace and sit in the darkness listening to the waves caress the shore. I won’t go to my special spot tonight though, because I won’t allow my sanctuary to be tainted by what I’m feeling right now. The lake, as it turns out, is about the worst place for someone trying to avoid people. The terrace is filled with families having drinks by the shore as they wait for tonight’s entertainment to finish setting up on the stage.
I make it about ninety minutes before my arm feels like it’ll fall off at any given moment. Grabbing as much as many of my possessions as possible seemed like a good idea. Turns out, I wouldn’t know a good idea if it bit me in the ass.
Thunder rumbles in the distance, warning me that it’s time to stop wishing and start planning. The alternative is even more weight when my bags become water-logged. I manage to make it two blocks before the first drops hit my face. I sprint toward a wooden pedestrian tunnel two blocks up as the rain starts falling in sheets around me. Sore and out of breath, I drop my duffel to the ground before easing myself onto the broken concrete.
“You waiting on the bus?” I look up and see a man, probably not much older than myself, glaring down at me. His long hair is twisted into dreadlocks and the thin cotton covering his body can barely be called clothing. “If so, you’d be better off waiting in the shelter. They won’t wait around on a night like tonight.”
A lump forms in my throat as I search for the truth. Even as I walked around aimlessly, I somehow managed to avoid putting a voice to my problems. In the end, I can’t do it. There’s no way I’m going to let the dozen or so transients taking cover know that I’m the new kid on the block while I’m carrying around a laptop and cell phone that could easily be pawned. That’s exactly what will happen with the phone, but I need to keep my computer safe. “No, not waiting on anything but the rain to stop.”
I tuck the duffel beneath my knees and slide the backpack off my shoulders. The guy with the dreads whispers something into his girlfriend’s ear before easing himself onto the ground beside me. My body stiffens as I watch him tap a cigarette out of the crinkled pack before he offers me one. I consider accepting even though I’ve never smoked a day in my life because I don’t want to upset him by rejecting his generosity.
The young couple sits next to me, talking in hushed tones as the wind howls through the tunnel. None of us are staying dry, but it’s better than nothing and we’re only wet instead of soaked to the bone. With the way my year has gone so far, that’d lead to starting my summer with a bout of pneumonia and a stack of medical bills I have no hope of paying.
“What’s your deal?” The girl asks. Her clothes are almost as tattered as her boyfriend’s, but her chocolate brown dress has an artsy, vintage feel to it. She pulls a sketchpad out of her messenger back and begins studying my face as she puts the pencil to paper. As the lead scratches each line, I wonder how she sees me. Will the resulting sketch show my naïveté and innocence? The pain I try to hide from the world? Or the little rich boy I look like with my L.L. Bean backpack and duffel bag?
“What do you mean?” I can’t figure out if she’s genuinely interested or trying to pry for information. Out here, I truly am on my own and I can’t make the mistake of trusting anyone.
She continues sketching as the guy lights another cigarette, dividing his attention between the image on the page and my face. He mutters encouragement toward her before turning his attention to me. “Look, kid…” I bristle at the condescending tone in his voice. “You look lost and tonight’s going to be a nasty one. Whatever you’re trying to do, you should probably head back to your air-conditioned apartment and conduct your little social experiment when the weather clears.”
“That’d be great, if I had an apartment, air conditioned or not.” My eyes are cast toward the stained sidewalk. I try not to think about what causes the discoloration because it’s most likely disgusting. “Contrary to what you might believe, not everyone who looks like me has parents who foot the bill for his every need.”
I push myself off the ground, nearly clobbering the guy as I swing the backpack onto my shoulder. It seems I’ve reached a sort of purgatory where I don’t fit into any of the worlds around me. The other man kisses his girlfriend on the cheek before gracefully standing. I make it three steps before his fingers wrap around my arm. Not wanting to cause any more of a scene than I already have, I turn to face him. I don’t punch him, as much as I want to because he has no fucking right to put his hands on me. Instead, I square my shoulders and hide the fear that has every hair on my body standing on end.
His blue eyes are framed with dark circles and premature age lines, but there’s none of the critical judgment I expect to see. “Kid, if you’re going to make it out here, you’re going to have to toughen up. Come on and sit with us until the rain clears. Once it’s not coming down quite so hard, I’ll show you where you should go.”
“Why?” The desperate part of me wants to believe that he’s doing this because he’s a good man who knows how hard it is to take the first steps onto the street. The rest of me, the part that’s been filled with misconceptions and stereotypes most of my life, figures he sees me as an easy mark; someone who will be easy to rob blind in the middle of the night. I know I should listen to my head, but it’s filled with so much garbage right now that I do something I’ll probably regret and force myself to calm down.
“Because I’ve been where you are. I don’t know why you’re here when you should be there,” he says, cocking his head toward campus. “Then again, I don’t suppose it matters why or how, does it? The fact is, you’re so far out of your comfort zone I’m not sure you would even know how to find it at this point. If you camp out at the wrong place, you’re liable to get picked up or jumped and you seem like a decent kid other than the chip on your shoulder.”
“I don’t have a chip,” I protest. Not once have I gone out of my way to be an asshole to him or his girl. I’m simply trying to protect myself in an unknown world.
“You do,” he argues. “We all do and that’s not entirely bad, either. Out here, we’ve all been screwed, either by our own choices or the shit hand life dealt us. What you need to figure out is how to keep the cause from pulling you under.”
While my new life is one I never fathomed living, it’s not all bad. Casey and Bree have officially taken me under their wings, almost like street parents. And yes, that’s a real thing out here and age doesn’t matter. When I had no clue where to go or what to do, they didn’t ask questions before showing me how they survive from one day to the next. We walk around during the day talking about who’s good and who to avoid out here, where to hang out and where to avoid like the plague. No matter what happens in my life, I’ll never forget Casey for being the first person to accept me without knowing anything about me. To him, I’m just Austin. I’m not some rich kid with a silver spoon in my mouth, I’m not a disgrace to those around me, I’m just me. And dammit if that’s not one of the best feelings in the world. The night I stepped out of the comfort of my dorm room, I thought my life was ending. In reality, I feel more alive than I have in years, all because I’ve stripped away the material bullshit that most of us use to assign value to our existence.
The past few nights have been spent sitting in dilapidated lawn chairs listening to a Vietnam vet play classic rock tunes on his guitar while Casey and Bree draw inspiration from the world around them to create line sketches and paintings to sell to anyone willing to name a price. It seems everyone up here has some sort of skill that helps them make just enough money to eat and buy the necessities.
Tonight, we’re dining on subs made from stale bread and produce that’s reached its expiration date. It’s the most I’ve had to eat at any one time since leaving the dorms. I’d give anything to have a few slices of lunch meat, but Casey made a good point when he said we’re better off sticking to the food that won’t kill us if it’s starting to go bad.
Every morning, I’ve left my bags with Casey so I can fill out job applications. I have no work experience, no address and no contact phone number, so doesn’t come as a surprise that most managers don’t want to take the chance on someone like me. That’s why I’ve decided to see if I can borrow five dollars from Casey tomorrow morning. My plan is to take the bus to the mall, sell my useless phone and pick up a pre-paid one. Right now, having a way for potential employers to contact me is the only circumstance I have the power to change.
“Hey Austin,” Casey mumbles around a bite of his sandwich. “I got a line on some work for the weekend. It’s going to be hot and miserable, but my buddy says the pay will be decent. You want in?”
“Hell yeah,” I respond. It makes me feel better, knowing that he’s making this offer to me instead of the other guys. He’s known them longer, but I’m the one he’s taking this chance on. “Any chance it’ll go longer than the weekend?”
“Probably not. His boss is a bit behind schedule and wants some extra hands to get back on track. He won’t keep us around any longer than he has to.”
Bree gathers her stuff and makes her way from the concrete stairs we all call home to the sidewalk in front of one of the pubs. It’s her favorite spot because she can talk to passersby and there’s a never-ending stream of inspiration for her drawings. Casey and I finish talking about the job, which turns out to be on a construction site, and join Bree after cleaning up.
Casey’s told me time and again that being homeless isn’t the same as being a pig. Part of the reason the cops don’t give our little circle a hard time is because everyone respects one another as well as those more fortunate than we are. Even the belongings we don’t take with us everywhere we go are neatly organized and stashed behind one of the decorative planters so there aren’t piles of crap creating a blight in the area.