Ryan's legs pumped the pedals as he sped out of the subdivision where Luke lived. His heart thumped, and he found himself frequently—and fearfully—looking over his shoulder, expecting trouble to follow him at any moment. Once out onto the main highway, he turned away from the direction that led towards his home and sped away down the hill. Head down, he mingled with the morning commuter traffic and resorted to using the sidewalk to bypass lines of slow moving traffic.
His confused emotions made it impossible to think straight, and soon he found himself heading in the direction of the MARTA, Atlanta's rapid transit, cross-city train line. In his head, it quickly became a destination that kept him going. What he might do when he got there, he had no idea, but it was better than nothing and he pressed on, taking less travelled roads to get there. Part way there, he felt his cell phone vibrate in his pocket, but he ignored it and pushed on.
It took him nearly forty minutes to get to the commuter station, where he stashed his bike in a rack alongside several dozen others and joined a line to buy a ticket.
A ticket to where? And why?
He honestly didn’t know, but what else could be do? He didn't want to be at home or at school, and he was here at the station now…and getting on a train was what everyone else was doing. Having shamed himself at Luke's, he had to do something. Surrounded by people who seemed to be going somewhere, he let them draw him forward so he didn't need to think about it.
At a convenience store, he bought a bottle of water and some Tylenol for his thumping headache. He hung back from the crowd, obscured by the side of the building, fearful somebody might see and recognize him. When the train headed for the city pulled alongside the platform, he waited while the others got on. Sticking to a plan that wasn't really a plan at all, he darted through the doors at the last moment, and made it just before they slid shut behind him.
As the train pulled out, his phone started buzzing yet again. Taking it out, he could see it was Luke.
He stared at the name as the device shuddered in his hand as it vibrated on silent. He feared to answer it and there was nothing he could say anyway, so he turned it completely off.
It was one of the longest, loneliest journeys Ryan had ever taken. The carriage was jam-packed with those heading into the city to work and, with no seats available, he stood, miserably alone in the jostling throng. At least nobody spoke to him and he felt safely anonymous in the crush. Eventually, as others exited, a seat became free and he huddled into a corner wondering how far he could run.
The train line ran from outside the perimeter on the north side of the city, through the city center to terminate on the southern edge of Atlanta. He'd planned to get off somewhere in the city, though had no real purpose or plan of what to do when he arrived there.
Head down, he curled up beside an excitable young kid who was travelling with her mom; the pair were probably going shopping. Across from Ryan, a dark-skinned elderly man appeared to be studying him. In fact, it felt like everyone was watching him, all carrying unspoken accusations. He tried to blank them out and pressed his face against the window, looking away as they passed through unfamiliar neighborhoods and onwards into the city.
He was so turned in on himself that he didn't watch the stops and was surprised to see Hartfield appear on a station platform board—the airport station located deep on the south side. On an impulse, he quickly got off before the train doors eased shut.
Head bowed, he shuffled along behind dozens of travelers, most of whom were pulling wheeled suitcases of all sizes as they flowed up the escalator to be deposited on the extensive airport concourse. He’d been there plenty of times before and knew the layout well enough—opposing ranks of check-in desks on the east and west sides, separated by an extensive atrium with shops, a food court, car rental services and general facilities.
Why did you come here, he wondered to himself?It almost felt ordained, or worse, an inevitable conclusion to a life of failure, deceit and wasted dreams.
For an age he stood in the middle of the heavy crowds, staring up at one of the massive departure boards. Tampa, Baltimore, Panama City, New York and dozens more—mostly national destinations at that time of day. While he didn't have a passport to travel abroad with him just then, even at fifteen and with no luggage, he bet he could still find his way onto a local flight. He had his wallet, credit card and driver’s license. It didn't really matter to where.
He gazed at the columns of destinations as passengers washed around him. If not a flight, then there were always the Greyhound buses that left from outside the lower entrance. He could just go. Disappear. Become a face on a milk carton for a few months and that would be it.
Flight numbers and destinations continued to flicker in front of him, but he hesitated. He wasn't sure what was stopping him. Probably it was the disturbing feeling that he was actually considering it! That, or he really was just a fucking coward!
He waited there for an age, screwed up over a list of destinations as, around him, others came and went. Having been drawn this far, he was stuck, unable to make a decision. He needed to think, but feared that, too.
Shoulders slumped by yet more failure, he abandoned the boards and passed through into the enormous central atrium, the hub for those waiting in comfort before taking the underground train that ferried them to the various terminals. Still nursing the vestiges of his hangover, he took another couple of Tylenol, emptied his water bottle, and perched onto the edge of one of the well-worn deep chairs to watch people pass him by. People going somewhere. People with a purpose, with a future—some alone, some chatting amiably with friends.
Nobody took any notice of him.
Could he really leave? Disappear, just like that?
Wondering what to do, he knew that whichever way he turned, trouble waited for him. Even if he didn't take a flight, the airport represented a choice: go home, or go somewhere else. He would have to decide soon, because maybe, even now, they were out looking for him?
Or, worse still, they weren't...
Exhausted and unable to face the questions, he settled back into the comfort of the seat and the hum of the airport activity came over him like a blanket. He stopped thinking at last and fell asleep.
Hundreds passed by over the next hour or so, none giving any thought to the teenage boy curled up and snoozing in the deep, soft chair; he was just a kid no doubt waiting—with his parents nearby—for a flight.
It was nearly two hours later that he was awoken with a start. The two women walking away pulling at a pair of enormous cases that had banged into his chair were the cause.
He’d been dead to the world, and he sat up suddenly, blinking at his surroundings. His mouth felt dry, but at least the headache had abated. Overall, he felt a little better and the sleep had helped. Standing to stretch, he left the cluster of soft chairs and went to buy another drink
For a while he wandered the corridors of the airport, still looking for answers. It was lunchtime. He didn’t feel like eating, yet at the same time felt hungry, so he bought the plainest sandwich he could find and over the next hour he chewed at it and wandered, still with no particular idea of what to do or where to go.
He went outside. It was the hot part of the day and he settled onto a bench in the shade to watch cars come and go. Some dropped passengers off, while others picked up people who would be—or had been—missed by friends and family.
What the fuck are you doing here?
He finally made space for the question he’d been avoiding.
Deep down he knew that he was fooling himself, and began to feel useless. He was too fucking weak! Who was he fooling? He wasn't going to get on a plane or even a Greyhound for that matter. It seemed inevitable that he would get on the MARTA train back home, whatever the consequences. Though he doubted his parents would even know he had skipped school yet again.
What hurt most, however, was the thought that he’d not be able to go back to Luke’s house again. Not now. Not after he'd let himself, and everyone else, down so badly.
How could he have been so stupid?
He knew he only had himself to blame. Luke might be all right, but Geoff and Lucy…? No, Geoff had made it pretty clear Ryan wasn't wanted, and Ryan couldn’t face them again. Not now. They were right...he was a waste of space.
But there was more to it than his behavior the previous night. More to his list of failures than just puking up.
Why the hell did he have to go and run…like some stupid kid?
In the middle of throngs of people, loneliness overwhelmed him and he went back inside, slipping into one of the restroom stalls as tears began to slip down his cheeks. He'd waited too long and stalled—unable to go forward, yet unwilling to go back. He was a nothing, and he scrubbed at his eyes, depressed further by his own weakness.
Checking his watch, he was surprised to see how late it was getting. School would be out shortly.
And how long did a kid have to be missing before someone noticed? Was the school asking questions? Had his parents been informed?
He suspected not as there had been no calls from them—and at the very least, he was sure his mom would have tried to contact him.
They hadn't. Nobody had.
Then he remembered that his phone had been turned off.
Quickly he switched it back on to find there were stacks of voicemails and text messages…all of them from Luke. He couldn’t face listening to the voicemails, but he began to read some of the texts that Luke had sent.
They all said roughly the same thing. Where are you? Call me!
Ryan couldn't help it, and wept. He just wanted to go home.
After a while he re-emerged and began washing his face under the taps to clear the streaks, battling his feelings and weighing his choices. From out of the mirror, his own familiar face watched him carefully, and he cringed at the mixed up collection of clothes he was wearing—stuff that had only been meant to get him back to his house to change that morning. His eyes flicked back up again to study the short cut black hair and dark deep-set eyes. At least it didn’t look like he’d been crying.
Again, he splashed himself with cold water, beginning to feel more refreshed. Forgetting the rather tight tee that he’d rather not be seen in at his own funeral, it was still his own skin he was wearing…yet—
That was what was wrong, he knew. Buying more time to consider the individual in front of him, he slowly washed his hands.
He’d always felt comfortable in himself, and with who, and what, he was. Of course he was so much more than his sexuality—even he knew that—yet coming to terms with that reality had formed a big part of what he’d had to make sense of over the last few years.
Even when Luke had first come onto his radar, while it had un-nerved him for a while, he’d got over it. Leaning over the sink he sighed as he remembered those early days and, for the first time that day, he smiled to himself.
Back then, he already knew he had more than just a passing interest in guys. It was unsettling, but he knew it would only be a phase, and he had it under control. It was out of the question that he would be gay!
And then the new kid from England had turned up at the start of the fall semester that year. He just couldn't help staring, and for all the wrong reasons!
For weeks he'd felt really uncomfortable with the new arrival—to a degree that he'd not experienced with a guy before. Scared that he'd end up saying something stupid and obvious, he'd shunned Luke. It was just self-preservation. He just couldn't afford for anyone to get the wrong idea…not at THEIR school! What Luke was actually like he had no idea. He kept their conversations to a minimum and never hung around long enough to find out who Luke really was.
It was about month or so into the term that Ryan had been down at the at the school tennis courts late one afternoon. School was finished for the day, but there would be nobody home for several hours, so he'd decided to stay on and get some practice before getting a taxi home. The previous season, Coach had said he had it in him to be more than just good, and Ryan meant to prove him right.
He'd hoped that there might be someone else around, but few stayed at school if they didn't have to, and so, alone, he'd been practicing returns against the auto-server.
And then Summers had turned up.
Ryan hadn't been rude, even though the guy didn’t even have the right kit, but had just nodded a greeting and got on with what he was doing.
That was until Luke challenged him to a game.
It would have been childish to refuse, so he’d gone along with it, expecting it to be over quickly. Then he'd make his excuses and get away. Just a game or two would okay.
But a couple of games turned into a set. That was the first surprise! They were pretty evenly matched. He had the bigger serve, but Luke was slightly taller, had a longer reach, and could move like the wind if he wanted to!
The second surprise was how easily they decided to give up competing. For Ryan, that was a minor miracle!
Maybe either of them could have won if they’d wanted to, but it didn’t seem to matter. They started playing for the fun of it and the shots became wild and hysterical. Luke was relaxed, funny, and, for someone who hadn't been playing long, not a half-bad player. Ryan not had that much fun in ages. Luke's mom—a lady he liked from the start—had even given him a lift home, and he and Luke had been firm friends ever since.
He studied himself in the airport restroom mirror again. A lot of water had gone under the bridge since then, though not all bad. In fact, most if it had been good. Even though he’d eventually come to terms with being gay, it was a relief to discover it didn’t mean he couldn’t still enjoy having straight friends. He and Luke got on well, and Ryan planned to keep it that way if he could.
And yet, because of his stupidity, now even that was gone…or at the very least, changed. Messing up like he had, it had to.
Unexpectedly, a familiar voice came from a few sinks to his right. "Hello, Ryan! What are you doing here?"
Ryan turned quickly and his eyes widened. "Father..."