Mason Rivers shuddered. It had only been a couple of hours, and the memory was still fresh in his mind. The police had questioned him extensively on the events at his local convenience store, but those two words—the last two words spoken in the incident—kept repeating themselves in his mind.
“Son, your mother’s here.”
Mason looked up at the policeman. Like Mason, the policeman had the skin tones that revealed his African roots. Unlike Mason, the policeman had a large, heavy frame, and Mason guessed he may have been a football linebacker in high school. Mason also couldn’t help notice the small mark on the right-hand side of the policeman’s uniform, as if part of his lunch had fallen and left a stain. It was as if Mason preferred to think about innocuous details like that rather than what had happened. “My mom?” he asked dumbly as he rose.
“Mason!” Juanita Rivers quickly enveloped her son in her arms. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Mom.” It was a lie, and Mason knew he wasn’t fooling his mother. As his mind shifted partly into gear, he realized something was amiss. He hadn’t been expecting her to be the one to collect him. “Why are you here? Why not Dad?”
“Your dad’s in court, so I came instead.”
“But aren’t you supposed to be campaigning?”
Juanita stepped back and looked up into Mason’s eyes with more than a hint of fire. “You’re more important than that. Yes, I was supposed to be at the mall, but when your father called me…” She didn’t continue but grabbed her son again.
Mason held onto her for several seconds. He hadn’t seen a lot of his mother in recent weeks as the primaries for the 2014 mid-term election approached. While Juanita had the unofficial backing of the party, she was in a tough battle for the newly vacated congressional district. They lived in a Los Angeles area district that was safely Democrat, but that also made it a prized possession for those aspiring to a political life. Juanita Rivers was trying to move from her position in the California Assembly to a seat in the House of Representatives in Washington D.C., and her first test would be the primary in a couple of weeks. As a Latina she had the dominant demographic of their district covered, and her African-American husband’s friendship with the pastor of the local church brought in enough of the black vote to make a difference, but neither she nor her family were taking anything for granted.
When Mason released her, he tried to smile. He didn’t succeed. “Can we go home now?”
“Of course.” Juanita didn’t smile, either, but her look of soft compassion helped to relieve some of Mason’s tension. “Your father should be home soon, and then we’ll talk about what happened and what it means.”
Mason shuddered again as the memory resurfaced of his good friend, his secret lover, being shot. At first, Mason had thought it was a simple robbery. That particular convenience store was a target every few months, which wasn’t a bad record considering the part of Los Angeles in which it was located. Crime was rampant in that southern L.A. neighbourhood. But two words and a gunshot changed it into a hate crime and potential murder.
“Do you know if Robbie’s okay?”
His mother gave him a quizzical look. “Robbie? Robbie Wilson?”
“He was shot. He…” Mason’s body started to shake, and his knees felt weak. Rather than fall to the ground, he collapsed back into the chair he had been in when his mother arrived. He buried his head in his hand as those last few seconds replayed themselves in his mind. The Latino sneer, the raised gun, and the two words.
* * *
“I’ve checked, and Robbie is still reported to be in critical condition,” Abraham Rivers said. “No visitors apart from family at this point in time. I’ve asked them to let me know when that changes.”
Mason nodded to acknowledge his father’s statement as he started on another piece of pizza. Their dinner that night was another indicator of the trauma. Pizza was only a staple in their household when Mason was by himself. If either parent was home, dinner would either be home-cooked or a night out at a restaurant. The only other time Mason could remember having pizza for dinner was the night his grandmother—Abraham’s mother—had died. That thought immediate made Mason lose what little was left of his appetite, and he dropped the slice back onto his plate.
His mother reached over and patted his hand. “I’m sure he’s going to be fine.”
“You don’t know that!”
“No, I don’t, but I have faith. He’s survived for this long, he’ll survive for longer.” She paused and continued in an even softer tone. “He means a lot to you, doesn’t he? You’re more than just friends.”
Mason’s mouth opened, but nothing came out. His parents knew he was gay, but he hadn’t shared any details with them, and up until that moment they hadn’t asked.
“Your private life is your own, Mason, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care.” His father smiled. “Your mother and I have suspected you had a relationship with Robbie for some time now, but we didn’t want to say anything.”
“We know you’ll want to go to the hospital to be with him, and as soon as non-family members can see him, we’ll make sure that happens.” Mason’s mother’s expression tightened slightly; Mason noticed, and it immediately put him on guard. “You just have to be discreet.”
“Discreet?” Mason thought he knew what this was about, but he wanted her to spell it out.
“You know where we live has a lot of gangs. You could be in danger if the word got out that you’re gay.”
Mason struggled to keep a scowl off his face. “I’m going to college in the fall. Nothing’s likely to happen before then, so why does it matter if more people find out? My friends already know.” Mason had been accepted into the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California, and he was looking forward to experiencing college life. While the college was close enough that he could commute from home, he wanted to live in the dorms for at least the first year.
Not unexpectedly, his father spoke next. Mason was used to his parents doing tag-team roles during family discussions, or, more accurately, parental dictation. “Yes, but you don’t need to spread it around. The more people who know, the more danger you’ll be in. Robbie was shot, and based on what the police told me, it’s being investigated as a hate crime. We don’t want that to happen to you.”
Mason knew better than to argue. While he suspected an ulterior motive, he also knew his parents wanted to protect him. “What is it that you want me to do?”
“As your mother said, you need to be discreet. It won’t be for long.”
With two parents who were lawyers—one of whom was also a career politician—Mason was sensitive to the words they used. “What do you mean that it won’t be for long?”
His parents exchanged a quick glance. “Mason, dear,” his mother said. “We know how much you’ve got your heart set on college, but—”
Mason leaped to his feet. “No! You can’t do this to me!”
“Sit down, son.” Abraham Rivers’ expression was stern. “Let your mother finish.”
“You’re not going to let me go to college! You’re going to ruin my future! Why? Because I’m gay?”
His father slowly rose. Once he was at his full height, almost equal to Mason’s 6’ 3”, he pointed at Mason’s now-empty chair. “Sit down and listen! You’re still going to go to college, just not yet.”
Mason dropped into his seat and underlined his scowl by crossing his arms.
His mother restarted. “Mason, dear, it looks like Robbie was shot by one of the local gang members. It was captured on the store’s video-surveillance system, but the quality wasn’t great, so you’re the only one who can positively ID the shooter. If something were to happen and you couldn’t testify, the hoodlum who did this to Robbie could get off. You don’t want that to happen, do you?”
“Of course not!” Mason knew he was the only one who saw the guy’s face. The thug had worn a ski mask when he entered the store and demanded money. It was after he had collected the cash and then shot Robbie that the mask was removed. Mason could still see the look of hatred and contempt on the guy’s face as he spat on Robbie’s bleeding body. He was lucky the Latino hadn’t noticed him hiding behind one of the shelves or he may’ve joined Robbie on the floor.
“That’s what we thought. Unfortunately, USC isn’t that far from here, so if the gang learns you’re there and they decide to silence the only witness…”
Mason shuddered. The most obvious way to silence him had already been tried once on Robbie. There was no reason to think the gang, or at least that gang member, wouldn’t try again. If his name got out, he would be next on the hit list. “How long?”
His father knew what he was asking. “With a case like this, it could be months before it goes to trial. You wouldn’t be safe if you stayed in the area. Your mother and I think you’re better off going to a different college, somewhere far enough away that no one will come looking for you.”
“I refuse to go to the Air Force Academy, and Capitol College didn’t accept me. Where am I supposed to go?” Mason didn’t need to explain to his parents there were only three decent colleges in the country that taught astronautical engineering at the undergraduate level. He was prepared to push back if they wanted him to lower his aspirations to an aerospace degree instead.
Both parents smiled. “We’ve found a place,” his mother said, “and I’m sure you’ll love it. It’s supposed to be a wonderful city, where I’m sure you’ll make lots of new friends.”
* * *
Mason lay on his bed, staring up at the ceiling while throwing and catching a basketball.
“You’re shitting me!” Jeremy Collins said. “You’re going to Australia?”
“Yep, but not ’til next year. School down under starts in their fall—in February.” Mason sighed and let the basketball fall onto the mattress next to him. He rolled his head to look at his friend. “Until then, Mom and Dad are sending me to Arizona to stay with my grandparents. That’s supposed to keep me far enough away to be safe, and then I can start getting ready to be exiled.”
“Exiled?” Jeremy—they often joked he was the token white guy in their group of friends from high school—grinned. “You’re looking at this the wrong way. You’re being sent to a country filled with hot surfer dudes. You’re going to be in heaven!”
Mason’s chuckle was half-hearted. “California’s supposed to be filled with hot surfer dudes, too, but look around. Do you know of any at our school?”
“But still…” Jeremy paused. “There’s something you haven’t told me. What is it, dude?”
“I called it exile because that’s what I think it is. The ‘rents haven’t said so, but I think it’s because I’m gay. They want me gone and out of sight.”
“Your folks love you! How can you say that?”
“Because they don’t want people to know. It was all too quick. I can’t believe that within hours of Robbie…” Mason’s voice faltered for a moment. “Within hours, they’d found another college that teaches astronautical engineering and had all the details ready to give to me. They had to have been looking before this happened, and all they needed was an excuse. They’re using Robbie to send me away! God, I hope he gets out soon. Everything’s so fucked up.” He wiped a hand across his eyes. Robbie’s condition had been upgraded to stable, but hospital visitation rights were still being restricted to family members.
Jeremy moved from the computer desk, sat on the bed, and put a hand on Mason’s shoulder. “Hey, dude, you’re stressing. What happened to Robbie is shit, but don’t take it out on your folks. Wait a few days and you’ll see that everything’s okay.”
Mason gave him a weak smile before staring up at the ceiling again. He knew he was right about what his parents were doing, and he could even make a guess at why they wanted him away. The local black church was a strong supporter of his mother and her political ambitions, but the pastor was homophobic. He wasn’t a fire-and-brimstone preacher, but when Proposition 8 to outlaw same-sex marriage in California was being debated, the Reverend Henry Jefferson was a prominent campaigner for the yes vote. Mason was sure his mother didn’t want word to get back to the pastor that she had a gay son. When viewed in that light, exiling her son to Australia seemed like a good idea. When the word got out—and Mason know it would be leaked by one of his mother’s political opponents if he wasn’t outed before then—she wanted him far enough away that she could separate herself from her son in the eyes of the pastor. Sending him to Arizona was only the first step in that plan.
“Okay, what can you tell me?” Jeremy gave Mason a mock punch to the bicep. “I’m jealous, you know. There’s no way I’m ever going to Australia, let alone go there for college.”
“What’s there to tell? I’m applying for a Bachelor of Space Engineering at the University of Sydney. Mom tells me that, given my SAT scores, she can pull a few strings to get me a place, but I won’t find out until December if it worked.” Mason gave a heavy sigh. “Until then, I’m a slave to my mom’s political campaign.”
“I think that’s a small price to pay for a year in Australia. Come on, dude. Lighten up!”
Jeremy blinked. “What?”
“Mom and Dad made it clear that it’ll be for four years. I’ll be there until I complete my degree…or until I bomb out.” He left unspoken how that was another indicator his parents wanted him gone. They had told him it was easier to complete the degree there rather than to try to shift credits from one country to another, but he knew it was an excuse.
“Four years? Are you shitting me?”
“Nope. It’s real. I’m being sent to the other side of the world because my ‘rents don’t want me around.”
Jeremy was silent for half a minute. “Even if you’re right, and I’m not saying you are, you need to look at this as a positive thing. Take one step at a time, starting with a year in the freshmen dorms surrounded by at least a few hot Aussies. You’re going to be horny the entire time!”
“Yeah, about that. The idea of staying in the dorms sounds like a great idea. Sucks it’s not going to happen.”
“Dude, what are you talking about? Tell your folks you want to stay in the dorms. Don’t let them make you take an apartment, at least not for the first year.”
“That’s not it. I won’t be staying in the dorms because there aren’t any.”
“There are no dorms.” Mason rolled over and sat up next to Jeremy. “There are no dorms, no frats, no sororities—not that I care about that—and I think there are sports teams, but there’s no athletics program, no big college football, basketball, or any other sport I can find. It sounds like you go there to study, and that’s about it.”
“You’re shitting me! Where is everyone supposed to live if there’s no dorms or frats?”
“At home, I guess. It seems that most of the students are from Sydney, with only a small number from elsewhere.” Mason rested his elbows on his knees as he stared out into space. “There are a few places on campus, but they sound as bad as military school. The first couple I looked at required students to show up for meals at set times—and to wear ties for dinner. There were a couple that sounded better, but get this: one only had room for thirty-eight students. That’s for all years, not just freshmen.”
“What are you going to do?”
“The website says there’s off-campus housing in the area. I’m going to find somewhere temporary and then look around for a place to stay longer term. Dad said he and Mom would consider buying me a place if I can’t find anywhere decent to rent.” He didn’t mention that was another reason he considered what was happening to be an exile.
He would still get his astronautical-engineering degree, but he would be doing it alone, away from family and friends. He didn’t like it, but with the guy who shot Robbie still on the loose, he knew he didn’t have many options. He hated what his parents were doing, but at least they were still listening to his dreams.
* * *
Mason cautiously hugged Robbie before stepping back from the hospital bed. “Any word on when you get to escape?”
Robbie didn’t smile. “A couple of days, and then I’m disappearing.”
“Disappearing?” Mason’s jaw dropped. “Why?”
“I have to.” Robbie wasn’t meeting Mason’s eyes. “I got word that the gang’s looking for me. They want to finish what they started.”
Mason grimaced. His father had already told him the police had the name of the shooter, but he had gone into hiding. No one on the streets was saying anything, and since Robbie was getting better, the police were treating it as just another robbery gone wrong with no special priority. The hate-crime aspect didn’t seem to make a difference to how it was being handled.
“What are you going to do?”
“The cops can’t protect me, so I thought I’d head north to my sister’s place. Maybe look for a job and stay permanently. I can’t come back. Even if they catch José, the other gang members will have it in for me.”
“José Rodriguez. He found out I had been fooling around with his cousin. That’s why he tried to kill me.” Robbie sighed. “Diego warned me, but I didn’t pay attention. I’m not taking any chances; as soon as the hospital releases me, I’m out of here.”
Mason managed to avoid shivering. He understood what Robbie was talking about, but it meant that if the shooter was ever caught, Mason would be the only easily contactable witness. That would make him a target for any of the gang members who didn’t want José Rodriguez convicted.
He didn’t want to go to Australia, but it was looking more and more as if he didn’t have a choice.