“Do I look okay?”
As Isaac glanced at Aaron, he stepped in a pile of slush that soaked straight through his sneaker. It was the end of April, but the vestiges of winter still clung to northern Minnesota, and melting snowbanks dotted the hospital parking lot. Aaron stopped and smoothed a hand down his jacket. It was a nice raincoat—the color of red wine, fitted with buttons on the front—but they both knew it didn’t matter.
Still, Isaac nodded. “You look great.”
Aaron tried to smile. “Thanks.” He pushed back a lock of blond hair that had crept over his forehead, and pressed a button to lock the doors on the sedan he’d rented at the airport.
The truth was that Aaron could be wearing his fanciest suit, but the only way to please their parents was if he donned plain clothes again—clothes that followed the rules of the Ordnung down to the very last detail. Isaac wasn’t wearing Amish clothes either, and he realized it would be the first time his parents would see him in English jeans and a hoodie. His green raincoat was thin, and he shivered, wishing he had gloves.
Maybe he should have changed into his Amish clothes after all. Mother and Father would hate to see him like this, but he’d wanted to…what? Make a statement, he supposed. But what was he really saying? Was it brave to spit in his parents’ faces and turn his back on his heritage? Or cruel?
Isaac tugged at his sleeves and scuffed his rubber toe across the wet concrete. Driving from Minneapolis to June’s farm near Zebulon had taken longer than he’d expected, and it would be dark soon. If he asked Aaron to go back to June’s now so he could change, the nurses might not even let him see Nathan by the time they returned.
They stood by the car, their breath clouding the damp, wintry air, and stared at the gray and beige concrete block that was the hospital. The glass doors of the emergency room split open as a nurse in blue scrubs came out. She lit a cigarette as she walked away from the door, joining a man in a wheelchair with a metal pole holding a plastic bag towering over him. The nurse exhaled a cloud of smoke and rubbed her arms.
“I guess we should go inside.” Aaron stared at the doors with hunched shoulders.
Neither of them moved. They’d been so desperate to get to Minnesota after the nurse had called. Mother and Father refused to come on the line, and she could only tell them so much. Nathan had cancer. He probably needed some kind of transplant. Could they be tested?
Now, standing in the slushy parking lot of the hospital under a gray slate sky, Isaac felt just as far away as he had in San Francisco. Nathan has cancer. The terror that his brother would die before Isaac could see him again had driven him here as though he were a horse kicked by a merciless rider. Not being able to speak to Nathan or their parents had been torture.
Yet now that he and Aaron had arrived, Isaac’s stomach churned. A vision of blood soaking into the fresh white snow filled his mind, and David’s voice echoed.
“I must repent or my mother will die. Everyone I love will pay for my sins. You need to stay far away from me.”
Isaac swallowed hard over a swell of emotion. They’d come so far together, but somehow not far enough. David hadn’t answered his calls and texts about Nathan. Why hadn’t he? The ache to have David by his side burned hollowly in Isaac’s chest. He itched to clutch David’s hand and feel his warm, solid strength.
“David’s coming tomorrow.”
Isaac blinked at his brother, his pulse jumping. Was I talking out loud? “What?”
Aaron held up his phone. “Jen’s taking him to the airport first thing. The redeye was booked, but he’ll be in Minneapolis by early afternoon.”
The surge of sweet relief was tempered by dark tendrils of disappointment and hurt. He wished he could scrub his brain and erase the image of David in that place. The image of Clark touching him. Kissing him. Kissing his David! Isaac’s mind whirled uselessly. “Oh.”
Aaron’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh? That’s it? Okay, tell me what happened. I know you don’t want to, but before we go in there and deal with all…that, we need to deal with this. Spill it. What did you guys fight about?”
Sighing, Isaac jammed his hands in his coat pockets. His face flushed, and he wasn’t sure if it was with anger or embarrassment. “He kissed someone else,” Isaac mumbled. He hated even saying the ugly words.
“What?” Aaron’s jaw opened and closed. “Are you serious? Of course you’re serious—forget I said that. What happened?”
Isaac kept his gaze on a scattering of rock salt. “I saw them kissing at the dance club. David didn’t think I’d be there, but I got a fake ID. I was going to surprise him.” He laughed hollowly. “Didn’t turn out how I expected.”
“I… Wow. I really can’t believe this. It doesn’t seem like David at all. He’s so in love with you. I mean, when he looks at you little cartoon hearts spring out of his eyes.”
“Really? You think so?” Isaac blinked rapidly to fight impending tears, and breathed carefully. “Then why? I guess Clark has something I don’t,” he muttered.
“Clark?” Isaac nodded, and Aaron pressed his lips together. “I can’t believe this. I’m going to kill him. Both of them! What did David say?”
“He said Clark kissed him like I saw, and that he tried to get away from him, but Clark followed. I saw them go into the bathroom together. David says nothing happened.” Isaac inhaled through the wave of nausea. “But I know what people do in there.”
Aaron’s gaze narrowed. “Wait—David says nothing really happened?”
“I want to believe him, but…I can’t get it out of my head, seeing them together. It makes me so angry and…sick. Sick to my stomach. I should have known. I heard Clark say that he was going to get David into bed the first night we met him.”
Jaw clenched, Aaron shook his head. “Well, that I can certainly believe. I love Clark, but he can be a selfish ass sometimes. But David? I don’t know. He’s never struck me as a liar, Isaac.”
“But we lied to our families and everyone we knew for months. We’re still lying to them.” He jabbed his finger toward the hospital. “I’m going to go in there and lie. Because it’s bad enough I betrayed God and my community by leaving. But if they found out who I really am? It would be over for good. No visiting. No letters. Nothing.”
Aaron sighed. “Isaac, when was the last time you got a letter? The only way they’ll ever let you back in their lives is if you repent your evil, worldly ways, come home, and join the church. Whether or not they know you’re gay won’t really matter in the end. Yes, you’re right—if they find out, they’ll turn away from you. Right now you’re not shunned like I am, but you’ll never have a real relationship with them. Not unless you go back and do everything they want. Give up everything you have. Everything you are.”
It was all true, but Isaac still shook his head. “I can’t tell them the truth. They can’t ever know.”
“I’m not suggesting you should march in there and come out.” Aaron took Isaac’s shoulder gently. “Just that you should think about how far you’re willing to go to keep that shred of hope alive. How much of yourself you’re willing to give up, and for what? Maybe a letter or two a year if you’re lucky?”
“It’s better than nothing,” Isaac whispered.
Aaron smiled sadly. “Maybe. And yes, you’re right that you and David have lied about who you are, and the truth of your relationship. But don’t hold that against him now. It’s not fair. Hear him out. Has he ever lied to you before?”
“No. I don’t know. I don’t think so. How am I supposed to know?” That was what dug into him the most with sharp, angry edges—that he wasn’t sure of anything now. Had David lied to him in the past? Isaac’s heart said no, but maybe he was fooling himself?
“I know you’re hurt and angry, and you have every right to be. Just don’t make any big decisions right now. Whatever happens in the end, I support you, but don’t give up on your relationship with David without really talking with him. He’s a good person. You both are. You can work through this. I know you can.”
He nodded. Part of him wanted to tell Aaron that David had apparently been lying about drinking as well, but the words wouldn’t come. He didn’t have a clue what to think about that. About any of it. He wanted so desperately to believe David had never wanted anything to happen with Clark, but he didn’t want to be…what was the word Chris had used? A chump. It was as though Isaac’s feelings were a big pot of stew inside him, stirring and stirring and stirring. It wouldn’t be long until it all overflowed.
In his pocket, his phone buzzed. Heart in his throat, Isaac pulled it out and read the words on the screen.
I will be there soon. I love you.
He exhaled shakily, the jagged edge of his panic dulling as warmth flowed through him. As hurt as he was, he knew David truly did love him. If that made him a chump, so be it. There was so much he wanted to say, but it would have to wait until they were together.
“I guess we really should get in there.” Aaron blew out a long breath. “It’s easy to give you advice, but not so easy to take it myself. I know I shouldn’t get my hopes up. They might not even look at me, let alone talk to me. God, it’s been so long. Almost ten years now. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Seeing them again, it’s…terrifying. But exciting too.”
Isaac squeezed Aaron’s arm. “I’m here. We’ll do it together.”
On the other side of the lot, a large delivery truck rumbled away, revealing a horse and covered buggy hitched to a light post. Isaac’s heart skipped a beat as he recognized old Roy right away. He thought of dear Silver, and hoped he’d see her again soon. Looking at the buggy, it hit home—Mother and Father were really inside, and so was Nathan. His little brother was in there, lying in a bed not knowing if he’d live or die, and here Isaac was worrying about himself.
Without another word, they hurried across the lot, almost in a run by the time the glass doors swooshed open to admit them to whatever might wait inside.
# # #
Although he was used to electricity now, the florescent lights of the hospital still seemed too bright. The gray floors were the same, and as he and Aaron took the elevator to the third level and walked down a long hallway, Isaac’s sneakers squeaked. He looked at the numbers as they passed, his heart beating harder as they got closer. A familiar dark-skinned woman in green scrubs walked out of a room and scribbled something on a chart before popping it in its plastic holder on the wall.
She glanced up and smiled brightly. “Isaac? Is that you?”
He managed a smile. “Yes. Hello. This is my brother, Aaron.”
“Hi.” Danielle extended her hand to Aaron before squeezing Isaac’s arm. “Wow. You look different.”
“I guess I do.” Isaac glanced around uneasily. “You look different too.” He waved his hand in the general direction of her belly.
“Yep.” She laughed and patted her flat stomach. “Had a little girl a few months ago. I’ll bore you with pictures later.” Her smile faded. “I’m glad you both could come.”
“How is he?” Aaron asked.
“Hanging in there. They’re testing everyone in the family to see if there’s a match, but no luck so far. If you can donate bone marrow that could help him a lot. Nathan’s sleeping, so I’m afraid you can’t talk to him right now. He had some more tests, and he’ll be out for the rest of the night, probably. We’ll get your samples to send to the lab at the Mayo for HLA typing after you say hi to your parents.”
Say hi. She made it sound so easy. Isaac wasn’t sure what HLA meant, but didn’t bother asking. As long as it could help Nathan get better, that was all that mattered. “He’s feeling all right?”
She grimaced. “I’m not going to lie—he’s in pain. He’s doing a course of high-dose chemo and radiation. It’s tough.”
Isaac wasn’t quite sure what those things were, but before he could ask, Mother appeared in a doorway near the end of the hall, about twenty feet away. Frozen in her tracks, she stared, and Isaac choked down a sudden sob. He wanted to run to her and have her hold him the way she did in this hospital after Mrs. Lantz’s accident, when she’d been so worried for him. Was she still worried? Did she still care? Isaac’s throat went dry, and he glanced at Aaron.
“Let me…can I talk to them for a minute?” Aaron asked. “If they’ll talk to me, that is.”
Isaac nodded, and watched him walk down the rest of the hall. How strange it was to see Aaron and Mother in the same place again.
“You’ve been staying with your brother?” Danielle smiled kindly.
“Yes. In San Francisco. He left years ago.”
“How was the trip? Was that the first time you’ve flown?”
He nodded, eyes glued to Mother, willing her to look his way again. “Flying was…weird. A little scary, but Aaron was with me.” It was difficult to even believe that yesterday he’d been all the way in California, and today he was back in Minnesota. He’d followed Aaron at the airport and did what he said, and wished he could have enjoyed the experience, but he’d only felt numb. Maybe if David had been there… But now he was on his way, at least. What will we say to each other? Is everything ruined? What would I do without him?
“You okay?” Danielle took his shoulder. “You look like you might throw up.” She put the back of her hand to his forehead.
“I’m fine.” He gulped in a breath and watched Aaron and Mother face each other.
“How does it work?” Danielle frowned as she followed his gaze. “I’ve heard of shunning, but I don’t know what’s real and what’s made up for TV.”
“Um, it’s…” Isaac trailed off.
Father joined Mother just outside the room, standing ramrod straight. Tears pricked Isaac’s eyes as he watched his parents. It had only been months, but they looked older. The gray from the beard that hung from Father’s chin had made its way over his head, weaving through his thatch of dark hair. Father gripped his black hat in his hands. Mother’s long dark dress hung off her thinner frame, and Isaac suspected that under her cap and heavy bonnet, her blonde hair might have its own hint of gray.
Aaron was speaking, and at least Mother and Father were listening, albeit with tight expressions. Mother’s gaze was locked on the floor. Isaac remembered that Danielle had asked a question. “Aaron had been baptized before he left, so he’s been excommunicated. He’s shunned. Meidung, it’s called.”
“Excommunicated,” she repeated. “So it’s an official thing?”
“Yes. Once they’ve decided there’s no hope for the person to return, at church the bishop officially casts them out to Satan. They’re a heathen because they didn’t want to live the Amish way.” Aaron was still speaking, and even from a distance Isaac could see the pleading in his expression.
“Wow. It sounds so…”
“Cruel?” He tried to ignore the lump in his throat. “They think it’s right. Not just my parents, but the bishop and the preachers. The whole community. It’s their way. They think it’s the best way to show love. Because if you love someone, you want what’s best for them, and being Amish is best. The only way.” Although he’d been gone for months, it felt strange to talk about it in terms of them and us. Now Father was saying something, and Isaac wished he could hear.
“They’ll still talk to people who are shunned? Or is this a special circumstance?” Danielle asked.
“They can still talk a little, although they usually don’t. No one can sell Aaron anything or buy from him, or take something directly from his hand. He’d have to eat at a separate table. He’s a total outcast.”
Danielle sighed, tucking back a dark strand of hair that had escaped from her bun. “So what good does all that tough love do?”
Isaac smiled wryly at the English term. “It’s supposed to convince the person to return to Amish life, so they can find salvation again. Get to heaven. When Aaron left, I prayed morning and night that he’d come back to us. It killed me to think of him not being in heaven. Everything was so black and white. I guess it still is for our parents.”
“How’s your friend David? I asked about him, and I got the impression that you guys left town together?”
Isaac’s chest tightened as fresh longing for David washed over him. “We did. He’s on his way.”
Danielle lowered her voice. “You two are together together, yes?”
He nodded jerkily. They still were, weren’t they? We have to be. “Yes.”
“But your families have no idea? Aside from your brother there, I assume.”
Isaac nodded again, and his fingers tingled. “They can’t find out.”
“Don’t worry, hon. They won’t hear it from me. Would you be excommunicated too?”
Down the hall, Aaron’s voice rose, and Isaac was dying to go over and find out what they were saying. But he waited and focused on Danielle again. “No. I haven’t joined the church, so they couldn’t excommunicate me. But I’d be shunned all the same even if it wasn’t official.” Even though he’d left Zebulon and hadn’t spoken to anyone there for months, the thought still sent cold terror slipping down his spine. The thought of his family knowing he was gay was even worse. “I think it would hurt them even more than this—than me leaving and being lost to the world. They could never understand my kind of sin.”
“I don’t think it’s a sin, but I understand what you’re saying.” She smiled sadly.
“Isaac.” Father’s commanding voice rang out.
Isaac’s feet moved obediently before he could even blink. Aaron stood with his arms crossed and jaw tight, and Mother had vanished, presumably back into Nathan’s room. Nathan. What would Isaac find in that room? He nodded as he reached the end of the hall. “Father,” he croaked.
Father’s gaze swept over him coldly from head to toe, and for the first time since Isaac had tried them on in the store, the English clothes felt unbearably wrong. He’d had a quick shower at June’s after arriving, and at least there was no gel in his too-short hair. He tugged at the collar of his jacket, almost unzipping it before realizing that using a worldly zipper in front of Father would only make things worse. He craned his neck to see into the room, but could only make out the foot of a bed.
He cleared his throat. “How is he?”
“The Lord might want him in heaven soon,” Father answered in German.
Aaron scoffed and muttered something under his breath.
Isaac struggled to find the right words in German. “But if he has a transplant? Will he get better?” He honestly wasn’t sure what a bone marrow transplant really was or how it worked. Aaron had tried to explain, but it was so hard to understand.
“If it’s God’s will,” Father answered. He stared at Isaac. “But you’ve forgotten about God. You’ve let the world take you.” His gaze flicked to Aaron. “Let yourself be led astray.”
“No. It isn’t Aaron’s fault. Father, I know it’s hard for you to understand—”
“Hard?” Father boomed before he glanced around and straightened his shoulders. He turned on his heel and marched into Nathan’s room.
When the door didn’t close, Isaac tentatively followed with Aaron behind him. He swallowed the urge to cry out at the sight of Nathan—pale and far too small in the bed, with plastic tubes disappearing into his nose and arm, and his brown hair plastered to his forehead. That their parents had admitted him to the modern hospital meant his prognosis was grim, but seeing him so wispy and weak still stole the breath from Isaac.
The mechanical beeping tapping out the rhythm of Nathan’s heart was the only sound in the room. That, and Nathan’s soft snores. Guilt and shame flared in Isaac as he remembered all the times he’d complained about Nathan’s sudden snoring keeping him awake. The thought that it was a symptom of the cancer ripped into Isaac. I should have known.
The rest of them were so silent they might have been holding their breath. Mother stood by the head of Nathan’s bed with her hands clasped and knuckles white. She stared at Nathan, and Isaac willed her to look up. He thought again of the last time they’d been in this hospital after Mrs. Lantz’s buggy accident, and the way Mother had held him so tightly. There would be no hugs today.
“Mother, I’m sorry.”
Her head shot up. “Are you, Isaac?” She glanced at Aaron behind him, and her eyes glistened. “It’s not too late. You can come home.”
“Mother…” A little part of him was tempted despite everything. It would be so easy to go back to the way things were, to a time when he knew all the rules. Of course he knew it could never be simple again, and that it never really had been.
Reaching out, she took a step toward him. “Isaac, you can return home and make everything right. This was only a phase. You don’t belong in the world. You’re not like him.”
Aaron’s voice was razor thin. “My own mother can’t even say my name.”
Her lips trembled. “You’ve made it clear that you will not repent your wickedness. You should beg God for redemption. If you showed true humbleness of heart and willingness to atone, you know we would welcome you home. We have prayed for it all these years. But now you’re corrupting our Isaac as well.”
“He’s not! He didn’t do anything but help me,” Isaac insisted.
“Help you?” Mother turned away, and her voice wavered. “You break our hearts.”
In the silence that followed, Nathan snorted and shifted on the bed, his lips parted.
“We should go get tested,” Aaron said. “That’s why we’re here. For our brother.”
Father regarded Aaron stonily. “We don’t want anything from you unless you return to the church and make up for what you’ve done. Show true remorse.”
“You wouldn’t even talk on the phone for Nathan’s sake.” Aaron’s eyes flashed. “Your precious rules are more important. I wasn’t about to let Isaac come here alone. No way. Do you even care about Nathan? I’m amazed you didn’t just concoct some home remedy from the newspaper and try to pray the cancer away. Why is okay to take English medicine with all these machines and electricity now? You’re such hypocrites.”
Father’s voice was barely a whisper. “We want our Nathan to live. Saving him is the most important thing, if God wills it. We’ve lost two sons already.”
Isaac ached, and had to look down at his shoes, blinking quickly.
“We’ll go talk to the doctor.” Aaron spun around and was gone.
Isaac looked between his parents, and at Nathan’s pale face. “I’ll see you tomorrow. When Nathan’s awake.” He backed up. “I’m sorry.”
“Isaac, my son.”
He stopped, his heart pounding. “Yes, Father?”
Father grasped his hand. “It isn’t too late for you. Come home. Yield to the Lord and all will be forgiven.”
“Please, Isaac,” Mother whispered. “Please.”
Father was holding his hand so tightly, and Isaac could barely get the words out. “How are Ephraim and the others? Can I come see them?”
Father glanced to Mother before answering. “We’ll pray on it. Everything is already upside down with Nathan here. We don’t want to confuse them further.”
“Isaac, come on,” Aaron called from the corridor.
Gently, Isaac tugged his hand free of his father’s, bearing the weight of his parents’ disappointment with each step he took away from them.
# # #
“Still on West Coast time?”
Isaac jumped as June joined him by the fence. He tried to smile. “I suppose so.”
“Sorry—didn’t mean to startle you. I thought you were fast asleep upstairs.”
“I tried, but…” Isaac fiddled with a knot in the old wood.
“I understand. I’m sure you’ll be able to speak to Nathan first thing tomorrow.”
He nodded, because there was nothing else to say. The ground was mushy, and his sneakers were undoubtedly getting muddy, but he didn’t want to go back inside. “How are you? I didn’t even ask.”
June smiled. “I’m good. Same old, same old. Glad spring’s finally coming. I was envious of you boys out in California.” She snorted. “My friend Susan is trying to convince me to move down to Florida with her. She’s living in a retirement complex. Condos around a big pool, and right near a golf course. She does aquafit every morning and plays bingo or golf in the afternoons. She loves it.”
“It sounds…good?” Isaac wasn’t sure what kind of game bingo was, but it didn’t really matter.
“I’d hate it. All those people around every day?” June shuddered. “No thank you. I’m quite content here in my little corner of the world.”
Isaac peered at the stars glittering amid the black shadows of clouds. “It’s so quiet. I forgot how much.”
“You’re a city boy now, huh?” The breeze lifted June’s tawny hair, and she brushed it from her face.
Was he? “I don’t know. It’s been exciting. I especially like being by the sea.” He loved the salt in the air by the water, but here the country air smelled just as sweet. He’d never really appreciated it before.
“I went to the ocean once. Atlantic City in the summer. There really is nothing quite like it. I can imagine San Francisco is pretty amazing.”
“Yeah.” Isaac smiled as he thought about riding the cable car with David. “I got to do so many new things. I met new people, and they liked me. They didn’t think I was a weirdo. I always dreamed of going to different places, and now I can.”
June smiled. “Sounds fun.”
“Yeah.” Isaac fiddled with a bit of old wire tied to the fence. “Fun. But it’s like…I didn’t realize until I came back here how much of a blur it’s all been. Everything is fast, fast, fast. Away from the city again, I feel like I can breathe deeper, even with everything that’s happening.” He ran a hand through his hair. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Sure it does.” She took an exaggerated breath and blew it out with a crooked smile. “There’s nothing like country air and peace and quiet to restore the soul.”
“I wish I could have them both. The city and the country, I mean.”
“Why can’t you? Plenty of people commute into cities, and even a country mouse like me enjoys visiting the big smoke sometimes. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”
“I guess not. I never really thought about it. I’m not even sure of all the options. The world is so big.”
“No need to choose right now. You’ve got a lot of years of living ahead of you, Isaac.”
He debated whether he should ask or not. “You don’t get lonely out here?”
“Oh, I still have friends in Warren. I miss my husband, of course.” Her gaze grew wistful. “He was a good egg, my Conrad. But I’ll see him again sooner or later. He’s holding a spot for me in heaven.”
Isaac smiled, but then a sinking sensation slithered through him. Would he go to heaven now? It was a question he’d asked himself countless times since leaving Zebulon, and now that he was back he wasn’t any closer to an answer.
“What is it?”
“Just thinking about heaven.” He watched the bare tree limbs sway as another icy puff of wind came from the east. “Everyone in Zebulon says there’s only one way to get there.”
“And what do you say, Isaac?”
“I don’t know. I…I’m not willing to give up David for it. Or give up who I am. But then I feel guilty, and I worry that it’s the wrong choice.”
“To thine own self be true. Some old guy said that hundreds of years ago, and I think he was onto something. You’re a good person, Isaac. I think God loves you just the way you are. You and David both. Oh, I can’t wait to see him again.”
Standing by the old paddock fence under the hiding moon, longing filled all the corners in Isaac. He wanted David here with him. He looked to the woods across the field, and was glad it was too dark for June to see the blush that heated his cheeks as he remembered that night when they’d tumbled from David’s horse and rutted together for the first time. It had been so glorious and…he thought of the word he’d learned in class. Liberating.
“I met your brother Ephraim the other week.”
Isaac tore his gaze away from the trees and stared at June, his heart tripping. “You did? Where?”
“Anna brought him over a little while ago. He’s quite a ball of energy. I think she has a little crush on him, although I bet she’d deny it fiercely.”
He laughed softly. “That sounds like Anna. And like Ephraim. I want to go over to the house right now and pound on the door so I can see him and Joseph and Katie. What if my parents don’t let me see them?” His smile was gone, and nausea had him swallowing hard. “I need to see them. Did Ephraim mention me? Is he mad that I left without saying goodbye?”
“I think he likely was, but when I spoke to him he only seemed curious. He asked a dozen questions about you and Aaron.”
Isaac gripped the fence. “Does he know about me and David? Did Anna tell him? Did you?”
“Of course I didn’t.” June clasped her hand over one of his on the worn wood. “I don’t think Anna has either. It would be best to tell him yourself, and I think you should. For better or worse. But it’s your decision. I only want what’s best for you. For all of you.”
He nodded. “Thank you. For everything.” The thought of telling Ephraim was almost as frightening as telling their parents. What if Ephraim was disgusted? What if he turned away?
June was quiet for a few moments. “I like Aaron. David says he’s been very good to you both.”
Looking out at June’s empty fields, he remembered David there with him again, pale in the moonlight, their lips meeting sweetly, and then the heat of their tongues discovering what a kiss really was. “He has. I don’t know what we would have done without Aaron.”
“This must be very difficult for him to see your parents again after so many years.”
“Yes.” Isaac scraped the word out through his sandpaper throat.
“Difficult for your parents too. And wonderful at the same time. I can’t imagine how much they’ve missed him. It’s not an easy thing to cut off your own child. I’m not saying it’s the right thing either.” She sighed. “The Amish sure don’t make it easy on themselves, do they?”
Isaac half smiled. “Definitely not.”
“It’s great that the oncologist is making visits here instead of having Nathan transfer to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. That would be quite a hardship on your parents. Way too far to go by buggy.”
“Danielle said it’s such an unusual case that he’ll probably get to write some kind of paper on it. Oh, Danielle’s a nurse. She was there after the accident last year.”
“Ah, yes. I remember her. She was very kind.”
A gust of wind sent a shiver through Isaac. Before he could stop himself, he blurted, “I don’t know what to do.” He traced the knot of wood with his finger.
“About what in particular, sweetheart?” June rubbed his back in that easy way English people had of touching.
Isaac wanted to lean into her arms and push away the thoughts jumbling his mind. “I don’t know. Everything. I hate how my parents look at me now. The disappointment. The betrayal. And if they knew that I’m gay on top of it, I just…I can’t imagine how they’d react to that.” He took a deep breath. “And I’m angry with David.”
She didn’t stop rubbing his back. “What happened?”
“It’s…we…” It felt disloyal talking to June about David, especially since she was his friend first. “I should have made him talk to me. I knew something was wrong the last couple of months.”
She sighed. “That boy does tend to bottle up everything inside.”
The memory of David without a shirt and Clark pressed against him flashed in Isaac’s mind. “I want to trust him, but I feel like I don’t even trust myself. Do you know what I mean? I’m angry at him, but I’m angry with me too.”
“Okay. Why’s that?” She gave him a pat before taking her hand away and leaning on the fence. She waited.
Isaac fidgeted, tapping his fingers on the wood. “Since we got to the city I’ve been able to do everything I wanted for the first time in my life. Aaron and Jen and David were all taking care of me. I could go to school and hang out with my new friends and do cool things and not have to work. I didn’t have to worry about money because I knew Aaron and David would give me whatever I needed.” His cheeks heated in the cool night. “I let them spoil me. I didn’t help David with work as much as I should have. He kept saying it was okay. I wish he hadn’t. I don’t know why he did.”
“Well, he loves you. He wants the best for you.”
“Of course. I know. But what about him? If he was having such a hard time, why didn’t he tell me?”
“Some people have a very difficult time talking about their feelings. After his mother’s accident, he wouldn’t talk to you or me. Just kept it all inside.”
Isaac nodded. “But wouldn’t he know that I’d want to listen?”
“The way I see it, Joshua’s death left a deeper mark on David than even he realized. I know I’m being an armchair psychologist, but as the only son left, he felt a great deal of pressure to live up to expectations. Then his father died, and he was responsible for his whole family. On top of all that, he was secretly gay in a society that absolutely forbids it. He must have internalized his fear and loneliness. I think he’s been like an iceberg. Some of it shows, but there’s a lot more going on below the surface.”
“An iceberg,” Isaac repeated. He thought of the movie they’d watched about the ship that hit one.
“I don’t know exactly what was happening with David in San Francisco, but I do know he would hate to disappoint you. I can easily imagine him biting his tongue rather than risk upsetting you or failing you in some way.”
The thought made Isaac want to cry. “But I love him. We’d work through it. I don’t want to be coddled like some little kid.”
“I don’t blame you. But I imagine he also felt awfully vulnerable.”
Isaac frowned. “Why? I was with him. I would never let anything bad happen.”
“Yes, but there he was living with you and your brother. Even though he was working, he was quite dependent on Aaron and Jen. He’s been the one others have relied on since his father died. But in San Francisco he lives under their roof, and everyone he knows is connected to them. I know he was stressed about the money they’d spent on him.”
“But they don’t mind.”
“I’m sure they don’t, but you can imagine how…exposed he must have felt. If you and he broke up, where would that leave him?”
Isaac’s voice rose sharply. “But we won’t! Just because I’m mad and, and hurt doesn’t mean we’re going to break up.”
“I know, sweetheart. I’m not saying you’re going to.”
“And just because we’re young doesn’t mean it’s not real.” His stomach churned at the thought of life without David. “I want to do new things, but I want to do them with him.” Isaac shook his head. “I’m sorry I’m yelling at you.”
“Don’t be. I’m glad it riles you up. Fight for what you want. Fight for him. Fight with him if that’s what it takes. Don’t let him bottle it up and tell you everything’s fine. Call him on it.” She raised her eyebrows. “And don’t stick your head in the sand.”
Isaac nodded. “I let him tell me he was fine. And there was stuff that bugged me, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to think about it. There were so many other things going on that I told myself it would all work out on its own.” He sighed. “Dumb, I know.”
“Human is more like it. Relationships aren’t easy. You have to work at it.”
Isaac stuck the rubber toe of his sneaker into the mud. “I always thought once you loved someone, the rest just fell into place.”
June’s laughter echoed across the field. “Wouldn’t that be nice? Love counts for a lot, but you need a heck of a lot of patience and grit too. Sometimes Conrad would frustrate me to no end. I did the same to him. But we’d talk it through. Compromise. But you and David can’t do that if you’re not being honest with each other.”
Isaac thought of Clark and what he’d overheard that first night at the bar. Why hadn’t he told David? Maybe David wasn’t the only one who bottled things up sometimes. “You’re right.” He nodded, his mind whirling with all the things he and David needed to discuss. “You’re right,” he repeated.
“Of course I am. I’m a wise old woman, Isaac.”
“You’re not old. You seem way younger than my mother.”
“Well, I haven’t popped out what is it, eight kids? Plus I have electricity. How does she manage all that laundry?”
Isaac realized he’d never thought about it. “She just does.”
“That’s what moms do. Now what I can do is make a mean cup of cocoa, as you know.”
Smiling softly, Isaac remembered sitting in June’s cozy kitchen after speaking to Aaron on the phone, a sweetly steaming mug warm between his palms. “I do know that. Thank you. Not just for that.”
“I know. How about we head in and I’ll whip some up? You’ll be sleeping in no time. You need to get some rest. I don’t imagine you slept much on the plane last night.”
Isaac chuckled ruefully. “No. Aaron did, but I kept worrying the plane would fall out of the sky.”
“I hear you.” She linked her arm with his, and they made their way back to the two-story farmhouse. “Conrad would be out like a light as soon as we got into the sky, but not me. No, sir.”
A little while later, Isaac slipped under a thick Amish quilt in the guest room, the taste of chocolate lingering on his tongue. The bed was unbearably empty, and he realized it was the first night he’d actually slept alone since he and David had left Zebulon. Had it really only been two days since he’d curled up like a stone, pretending to sleep when David came to bed after going to that club? Now it was the first time he’d slept alone since he could even remember.
Closing his eyes, he said a prayer that it would be the last.
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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