Apple Polisher (Rear Entrance Video, #1)

Apple Polisher (Rear Entrance Video, #1)
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-034-5
eBook release: 
Jul 29, 2013
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-035-2
Print release: 
Jul 29, 2013
Word count: 
60,800
Page count: 
228
Type: 
Cover by: 

This title is part of the Rear Entrance Video universe.

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This straight-A student has a dirty little secret.

Christian Blake dreams of being a kindergarten teacher, but making the grade means maintaining a squeaky clean image: no drinking, no drugs, no swearing, no sex. And definitely no falling for his new roommate—tattooed bad-boy Max, who may or may not be a drug dealer.

Most of all, it means no working at a porn store. But Christian’s aunt has cancer, and her beloved Rear Entrance Video will go bankrupt if Christian doesn’t take over managerial duties. Soon enough, Christian finds himself juggling sticky twenty-five cent peep show booths, a blackmailing employee, and a demanding professor who likes to make an example of him.

And then there’s Max, who doesn’t know anything about the store, but hates Christian’s preppy sweater vests and the closet Christian forces him into when they’re together. Max just wants Christian to be himself—even though Max is keeping secrets of his own. Christian struggles to find the impossible balance between his real life and the ideal one he thinks a teacher needs to live . . . all while trying to keep his aunt’s dream alive without losing his own.

This title comes with no special warnings.

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

AVAILABLE IMMEDIATELY: FULLY FURNISHED BEDROOM ON THE DRIVE $325/MONTH

HERITAGE HOME

WALKING DISTANCE FROM SKYTRAIN

UTILITIES INCLUDED

HIGH SPEED INTERBUTTS

MUST HAVE GOOD TASTE IN MUSIC

SHARED KITCHEN/BATHROOM

NOT SOMEBODY’S BASEMENT

YOUR OWN ROOM

RAD ROOMMATES—THERE ARE FOUR OF US (ALL GUYS)

YOU EVEN GET A WINDOW

SMOKING OUTSIDE ONLY / NO PETS

DEPOSIT $175

I’M NOT JOKING ABOUT THE MUSIC THING

This is all you can afford now, Christian reminded himself. He folded the ad into quarters, then eighths, stuffed it into his back pocket, and stared at the lopsided house in front of him as if he could turn it into something remotely habitable with the power of his mind.

One of his four possible future roommates (all guys) must be a real estate agent in his spare time, because only a real estate agent could call this dilapidated Edwardian fire hazard a “heritage home.” Sure, it was old enough to be “heritage,” but he didn’t know where the “home” fit in unless maybe you were a squatter or a feral cat.

Once-white gables sagged under the weight of a flaking shingled roof, and the yellow paint was a sad shadow of its former cheerfulness: dingy, peeling, and crawling with a film of green moss. What wasn’t filthy was in disrepair. It should have been condemned.

Christian made his way up the house’s weed-strewn front path, hopped the collapsed first stair of the porch and, left off-balance by his acrobatics, fell into the front door. Hopefully a full-body-and-head knock wouldn’t sound any different from the inside than the ordinary with-your-knuckles kind.

“Coming!” someone shouted from inside. “Coming! Coming! Just a second!” And there was a clatter like a class of kindergarteners trampling down the stairs, followed by indistinct yelling. (All guys.)

Nobody answered the door, though, so Christian was left to stand around and scrutinize the stained-glass window above his head. Which could use a few replacement panes, a couple hours of elbow grease, and a bottle or two of glass cleaner. He sighed.

This is all you can afford now, he said to himself again. Maybe he’d get it tattooed on himself, like some people got fortifying tattoos like This too shall pass, or Not all who wander are lost, or that twee Lord grant me the strength poem that somebody had been so kind as to lovingly cross-stitch and hang in a place of prominence on the chemotherapy clinic wall.

At last, a series of clicks came from inside the door, four locks in all from top to bottom: the sign of a house broken into with depressing frequency. Christian stood straighter and tried to wipe the expression of disapproval—this is all you can afford now—off his face before the door finally opened a crack.

A round Asian face appeared at shoulder height. “Oh, um, hey,” the guy said. “Are you Christian? I mean, Christian the name, not Christian the religion. You’re not one of those door-to-door Mormon guys or something?”

“No. I mean, yeah. Christian. From Craigslist. Hi.” Christian raised a hand, ostensibly as a wave but mostly to try to convince the nervous-looking kid on the other side of the door that he wasn’t armed . . . with a weapon or a bible, he supposed.

“Cool, okay. I’m Rob. C’mon in, everybody’s in the living room waiting.” Without opening the door beyond those first two or three inches, he turned and headed down the hallway.

It went against everything Christian had been taught about manners, but he reached down, grabbed the door handle, pushed—

And the door caught on the chain.

“Oh, sorry,” Rob said, and just as he slipped the chain, Christian gave the door another push, sending the door and Christian flying into the foyer—well, not the foyer so much as flat into Rob’s face.

Rob stumbled back into the entryway, clutching his nose with both hands and cursing a blue streak that seemed seriously at odds with his previously timid demeanour. Christian, pulling his own hair in sheer panic, followed him in and tried to fit apologies in the spaces between the fucks and shits and motherfucking cocksuckers.

“What the hell, man!” yelled someone else, barrelling through a side door and into the already crowded front hall. Two more came in on his heels, which made four. (All guys.)

“It was an accident, I swear!” Christian said, putting his hands up and backing toward the front door.

“It was an accident!” mimicked the last of the four, a short, lanky guy with stretched earlobes and a tattoo creeping out from under his white, ribbed tank top.

This was about to get ugly. This was all he could afford, and it was about to get ugly. Might as well give up and drop out of school, work two jobs, and hope he could scrape together enough to pay for a place where he could live alone. Maybe a bachelor suite out in Surrey . . .

But it never did get ugly. Rob stepped between his roommates and Christian, arms out, and said in a small voice, “You guys, it really was an accident. I invited him in and then he pushed the door when I was still undoing the chain and he accidentally hit me with the door. Accidentally. So . . .” He took a deep, fortifying breath, like a man about to make high dive. “So calm your fucking tits, Max.”

The commotion turned to stunned silence. For a second, all they could do was stand and gawk at Rob, who after his outburst had shrunken in on himself, seemingly waiting for the smackdown. But Max just sniffed, spun on his heel, and disappeared through the same side door he’d initially come through.

“Hit him with the door?” the buff roommate in the popped collar asked, falsely light at first, but quickly regaining confidence again. “You sure we need somebody that accident-prone under this roof, Noah?” He slapped the one he’d called Noah on the back, wrapped an arm around his shoulders, and steered him into the door Max had gone through.

Just Christian and Rob left, now. Well, them and the yawning chasm of awkwardness hanging between them.

Christian was about to apologize, but Rob beat him to it. “Sorry about that,” he said, rubbing at his elbow and tilting his head so his long dark bangs shadowed his eyes. “Those guys are full of shit mostly. Anyway, um, come on, living room’s through here. I guess.”

You guess? “Wait, so you still want to interview me? I figured—”

“Nah, it was an accident and they know it. Like I said, full of shit.” Rob shrugged, turned, and padded into the living room, leaving Christian in the front hall, bewildered and wondering if it was safe to take off his shoes on the old, splintered hardwood.

He did—mostly because he didn’t want to add insult to literal injury and he really did need this place—and followed them into the living room. They gave him a place of honour in the room’s lone ratty old recliner, leaving everyone else to fight for space on the couch, although currently neither Max nor Rob had taken a seat, so not much fighting was going on. Not about the couch, anyway.

And he had gotten a splinter for his trouble. A splinter he was currently forcing himself not to pick at, which took a lot more effort and concentration than you’d think, if the fact that he’d missed at least two-thirds of the current conversation was anything to go by.

As far as Christian could tell, it was Max’s fault they hadn’t even made introductions or asked him a single question. He and Rob were currently locked in some kind of standoff.

“We all talked it over. We all agreed to do this as a group,” Rob said in a distressed-bordering-whiny voice that brought out a tinge of a Chinese accent.

“Yeah, well, that was before he wasted ten minutes pounding your face in. I got a thing to be at. An appointment.” Max had his arms crossed over his chest, chin tilted up in some kind of watered-down gangster pose. He kept making aborted motions to edge back toward the door, his brightly coloured tattoo shifting over his muscles.

The other roommates spectated in silence while Rob stubbornly soldiered on, the entire time avoiding eye contact and looking a little like he was going to shake to pieces. “Why would you make an appointment for today? You knew we had to do this. You agreed to it. We all ask him a question. We all vote on whether he gets to stay.”

“Fine, fine.” Max dug around in the back pocket of his skintight jeans and pulled out a crumpled pink Post-it. He unfolded it, held it about three inches from his face, and read aloud in a voice as shaky as a third grader’s, “Who is hot-ter: Megan Fox or Zooey Deschanel?”

Seriously? Max looked at him expectantly. Yes, apparently. “I guess I hadn’t really . . . noticed.”

Max tossed up both arms, the Post-it falling from his hand. “There you have it, boys. My vote’s ‘no.’ Can I go now, Robert?

Rob didn’t have a chance to answer; Max had already stormed out.

After a second or two, Noah patted the couch cushion beside him. “C’mon, Rob. He wants to be that way, fuck ’im.”

Rob smiled a little and went to take his seat. Noah, meanwhile, turned his blue-eyed gaze on Christian. “Sorry about that. If you still want to live here after all that, we might as well just give you the room here and now. I’m kidding, Rob. Anyway, I’m Noah. I’m a sous-chef at an Italian restaurant a couple blocks from here. And this is Rob.”

Rob nodded like a dashboard bobblehead. “I’m a first year at Emily Carr.” He’d returned to his super-soft speaking voice, his accent smoothing out to a flat—if slightly high-pitched—Canadian one again. “I haven’t specialized yet but I’m probably gonna go into sculpture.”

The roommate sitting on the other side of Noah, a good-looking muscular guy with a nice tan and a hockey player’s wings in his shaggy blond hair, raised a hand. “And I’m Austin. SFU athletics. You go there too, right?”

He’d said as much in his email to Rob, which he now knew had probably been printed out, pored over, and carefully categorized before they’d gotten back to him to schedule this meeting.

“Yeah. Christian Blake. Did a degree in Canadian Studies, now I’m applying for PDP—uh, teaching school. I want to be an elementary teacher.”

He could see the nerd pass across Austin’s features at that. His eyes were already glazing over.

“You doing Kinesiology or Communications?” Christian asked, and Austin gave a good-humoured snort.

“Yeah, you’re all right, man,” Austin said, sitting back into the sunken couch cushions, and at that harmless familiar barb, the tension vanished from the room. Christian couldn’t help but let out a sigh of relief.

They asked him about his personal habits (he showered every day but he was quick about it), his schedule (he was an early riser by necessity but he slept like the dead), whether he had any dietary restrictions (nope), if he had a girlfriend (haha, no), whether he drank or smoked or did any drugs.

“No way. PDP is really strict about that stuff. I’ve heard of people getting kicked out just for having a picture of them drinking a beer on their Facebook, so I quit all that stuff cold turkey. It’s just not worth the risk. Oh, but,” he amended quickly, “I don’t mind if other people do. I mean, it’s cool if you guys smoke weed or have parties or whatever. I’m not judgmental.”

That seemed to satisfy Austin, who’d been the one to ask the question.

“So why should we pick you?” Noah asked, very seriously. Christian wondered if he was in charge of hiring the kitchen staff where he worked. “Over anybody else who emailed us, I mean. I’m not trying to freak you out, but we’re pretty spoiled for choice here.”

Christian jiggled his knee, then forced himself to keep still, reminding himself that this was no worse than the torture of his teaching school interview. Not to mention fidgeting made the whole couch shake.

Because this is all I can afford, that familiar nagging voice in his head supplied, and I don’t have anybody left I can depend on and I don’t know how I’m going to afford these tuition payments coming up and I don’t know if this scholarship money is going to come through and—

“I always do the dishes?” he tried.

“Sold!” Austin laughed. “Rob? Noah?”

Rob, who’d been mostly mute during questioning, brushed his hair back over one ear. “It would be nice to have some help cleaning up after dinner . . .” he murmured.

They all turned to Noah. Noah, who had explained earlier how he owned the house after inheriting it from his great-uncle but preferred for things to be democratic rather than having to act as a landlord. Which, of course, was a nice sentiment, but when your name was on the deed, it meant diddly-squat. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “So that’s three to one. I guess you’re in, Christian. Rob’ll show you your room, give you the big tour of the house, and if you like what you see he’ll get your deposit and give you your key. Anything else you wanna say before we get going?”

Yeah. I’m gay. That’s part of why I’m in this fucking mess. But don’t worry, I’m too terrified of getting kicked out of teaching school to dare get laid.

He took a deep breath. “Yeah, just one question. Aren’t you gonna ask me about my taste in music? Or was that one of Max’s hard-hitting questions?” He grinned, baring his teeth.

“It was me, actually,” Rob admitted. Half a smile tugged at his pouty mouth. “The last guy who had your room was some weeaboo into J-pop and if I heard Smile.dk one more time I was gonna throw his laptop out a window.”

# # #

He moved in the next day.

The hostel had been a lifesaver after his abrupt departure from SFU’s suddenly overpriced campus residence, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t happy to leave. No more worrying about his miserable roommate’s inexplicable mood swings and casual racism. No more smelly backpackers. No more acoustic guitars. No more carrying his valuables wherever he went, even to the shower.

He wasn’t sure about Max, but the other guys in his new “heritage home” seemed pretty aboveboard. He’d learned on Rob’s tour that his bedroom even had a lock, something you didn’t really appreciate until suddenly you were without one and some racist asshole was free to riffle through your stuff every time your back was turned.

So yeah. A lock. The latest in a series of small-but-welcome reliefs that the last few months had taught Christian to appreciate. Only Noah and Christian would have a key, as was house policy, and Rob had been quick to assure him that Noah never abused his not-landlord privileges. Even so, Christian would give it a couple weeks, feel them all out, and maybe then decide how paranoid he needed to be.

Not that he had anything worth stealing anymore, not after he’d sold off all of his non-essential electronics to keep him afloat through to the end of last semester. In fact, he didn’t own much of anything period, worth stealing or not. So he arrived on the doorstep in the morning with an overstuffed hiker’s pack, the clothes on his back, and a laptop under his arm. That was it. His entire life.

His aunt would tell him life was more than “things,” in that voice-of-experience way that he couldn’t dare fight with, but she wasn’t here, and his basic sanity demanded that he not think about her too hard or too often. Heartless, but necessary, what with the spectre of his gruelling back-to-back practicum semesters looming. He needed to focus. She understood.

Rob met him at the door.

“Oh!” he said, and then bit his lip, casting his gaze across the porch. “Is that everything you have? Is there more coming? I thought I’d help you move in. I mean, if you want. Me. To help you.”

Christian had to wonder what Rob would have done if he had needed help with his stuff. Not that Christian was a linebacker or anything, but Rob had to be a hundred and thirty pounds soaking wet. But he obviously liked to be useful, so Christian handed him the laptop with what he hoped was a grateful smile. “Yeah, I’m kind of a nomad. Don’t own a lot of stuff.”

Rob also seemed keen to play the role of host, so Christian allowed himself to be led to his own room. “I cleaned it myself after the last guy moved out,” Rob said, hugging the laptop to his chest as he waited for Christian to unlock his door. “Top to bottom. A year’s worth of Pocky crumbs. Can’t say the bathroom or kitchen will be even half as clean, sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Christian tossed his bag onto the bed, put his hands on his hips, and surveyed his new room. His. Despite how decrepit it was, he still felt the same high he’d felt when he’d first moved into residence four years ago. He wondered if being out from under his mother’s watchful eye would ever get old. He squinted at Rob. “Hey, how come you live here and not in the dorms? Or with your parents, even? They not live in the lower mainland?”

The question obviously took Rob by surprise, because he gaped like a fish. “Dorms are too expensive, as I’m sure you know. And I may not look it but I am of age. It’s not like I’m some sixteen-year-old art prodigy. My parents are just out in Coquitlam. I told them I didn’t want to make the commute, but mostly I needed to get out of there, you know?”

Christian shrugged, the question cutting him too close.

“They’re really good parents. It’s not that kind of thing where they want me to be a doctor or a dentist or something. They’re even paying my tuition and part of my rent here. They’re totally supportive, I mean. It’s just . . . It’s not . . . It’s not them, it’s me.”

Well, that was weirdly defensive. “Oookay.” Christian pointedly turned and unzipped his bag, hoping Rob would take the hint.

He didn’t. “What about you?”

“My mom’s back in Jamaica. I have an auntie here, but I only met her after high school so I’d feel weird moving in now. That and she has other stuff on her plate.”

Other stuff. That was one way to put it. Ovarian cancer. Other stuff.

“Back in Jamaica? Back? Are you from Jamaica?”

Was he going to have to tell the kid his whole life story?

No. That wasn’t fair. Rob sounded genuinely interested, and he hadn’t done anything to deserve the cold shoulder. If Christian was going to become a teacher, especially teaching little kids, he needed to learn to be cooler about personal questions. “No, I was born here. My mom’s from there though. She moved back when I was seventeen.”

“Are your parents divorced? Did you stay with your dad after that? That must have been hard.”

Be nice, a voice urged him. He didn’t know if it was his inner teacher, or his aunt.

“Yeah—”

Max’s head popped out from behind the half-closed door. “Knock knock! Oh hey, nugget!” he greeted Rob, then nodded solemnly to Christian. “New Guy.”

Christian nodded back.

“Just back from a run.” Which explained why he was a little breathless, his short curly hair sticking damply to his forehead. A flush of exertion covered both cheeks and followed the line of his nose up to his forehead, and a sheen of sweat hung on his upper lip until he somewhat licked it away. His tongue was pierced. Oh yes, Christian noticed, although he had the good sense to hate himself for it. “It’s hot as the devil’s ball sac out there. I, uh . . . I drank that bottle of water you had in the fridge.” He flashed Rob a not-nearly-apologetic-enough look.

Rob’s hands balled up into fists. “The Fiji bottle? The one with the Post-it that said ‘ROB’S, MAX DO NOT DRINK’? That one?”

“Oh, I didn’t see a Post-it. It was probably the condensation on the bottle, it probably washed the glue off. You know how it is with condensation.”

“How convenient.”

“Aw, don’t be like that. You know I’m good for it. I’ll have some cash Friday night. I’ll buy you a whole case.” He was laying on the charm real thick, smiling like a wolf. The better to eat you with. “You still love me, right?”

“Hmmph,” Rob replied, but the corner of his lip twitched in a smile nonetheless.

God, was there something going on between them? Had he unwittingly walked into Noah Hadley’s House for Wayward Gay Boys?

No way.

Chapter Two

Max made good on his promise. Friday morning, Christian stumbled down to the kitchen, threw open the small shared fridge, and discovered that an entire shelf had been swallowed up by a flat of Fiji water, labeled with a Post-it that said simply, “Rob.”

In fact, Max seemed to have a whole shitload of money to splash around. That evening he bought them all beer, an obscene amount of pizza, and a new Xbox game to play while they ate. He wouldn’t take repayment for any of it, either, not even from Christian, who barely knew him.

Barely knew any of them, actually. The wildly diverging sleep schedules and shifts for their various jobs didn’t leave much time for socializing, and even if it did, Christian had found it hard to leave his room much over the last week. He spent his time split between looking up lesson planning on the Comic Sans-riddled corner of the internet where teachers dwelled, and scrolling through WebMD and way more sketchy “natural health” websites than he cared to admit.

So the Friday night pizza and first-person shooter-fest seemed like a cosmic sign. A stop-looking-at-websites-that-blame-cancer-on-fluoride kinda sign. A Jake-Bass-will-never-sleep-with-you-so-meet-a-real-guy-already sign. Okay, maybe not the last one. Teaching school. Closet. Celibacy. Right.

Living in a house full of hot mid-twenties guys really wasn’t helping on that front. Ever since Christian had come out (only to head right back into the closet again, but never mind that), he’d spent at least half his time trying to convince people that the whole predatory-gay thing was about as true as the you-can-get-AIDS-from-a-toilet-seat thing and just as offensive. But the combination of no sex and Noah Hadley’s Home for Wayward Gay Boys was turning him into a walking stereotype with an unruly boner.

He couldn’t help but take an inventory, now that they were all in the room together.

Item one: Noah Hadley himself, now seated in his recliner and devouring his third slice of pepperoni pizza. Tall, kinda tubby, blue eyed, brown haired, perfectly average looking except for how he grew the kinda scruff you desperately needed to drag your fingernails through, that made you think he just had to have a gorgeous bush, too. And all that focus on knife work for his job, he had to be good with his hands.

Item two: Austin Puett, the second youngest in the house at twenty-one, sitting on the couch next to Christian with a slice of pizza hanging out of his mouth by the crust and a controller in his hands. Muscular. No, work-out-five-times-a-week muscular. Goofy smile, like an eternal teenager. Buckets of dumb jock appeal. Bad cologne, but nothing a hot shower (together) couldn’t fix.

Item three: Rob(ert) Ng, on the floor at Noah’s feet, legs stretched out in front of him and still painstakingly picking mushrooms off his first slice of deluxe. The youngest guy in the house, and the most earnestly awkward, too. Not exactly Christian’s type, but for a certain set, he’d be a real prize: slim, as slightly built as a fashion model, and a pout that could get him anything, just so long as he asked the right guy. No wonder he hated weeaboos so much. They probably treated him like a demigod . . . just so long as he played the role they wanted him to.

Christian knew that feeling, except in his case they all wanted him to play the thug and were sorely disappointed when they got mild-mannered kindergarten teacher instead.

And then there was Max.

Christian swung his eyes to the television, the screen bisected for two players, and then down to the slice of pizza hanging limp in his hands. Anywhere but—

—Max. Item four. No last name. Not even Noah knew it, or if he did, he was keeping it real hush-hush. Compact and wiry, dark curly hair, full lips, Roman nose. A few freckles on his high cheekbones. Big hands with knobby knuckles. Somewhat badly dressed in skinny jeans and ironic thick-framed glasses that ten-to-one odds weren’t prescription. Still owned a skateboard in 2013, and somehow that made him all the more appealing. And the tongue piercing. Couldn’t forget the tongue piercing.

Clearly Christian should have gotten over his bad-boy stage in high school like everyone else did, because this was just painful.

Of course, then Max would open his mouth, this time yelling “Get some!” at the screen, and Christian would be cured again. Thus released, he ate his free pizza with gusto, punched Austin in the shoulder when Christian’s turn with the controller set the jock off shit-talking, and refused at least five offers of free beer, even though the temptation was nearly destroying him.

Nobody asked Max where the money had come from. And after a week of Mr. Noodles, and still on unsure footing with all of his roommates but puppy-dog Rob, Christian wasn’t about to rock the boat.

That night, Christian went to bed with a belly full of pizza, but still hungry. Jake Bass would have to suffice.

# # #

The restlessness didn’t last long. There just wasn’t time for it.

The following Monday was the start of classes on campus, nine-to-five days spent going over classroom management plans and grading procedures and ethics workshops and arguing in circles about standardized testing. A semester and a half of this, and then he would finally be assigned to an actual public school classroom and be taking on actual student teaching duties. Marking. Teaching. Photocopying. More photocopying. More marking. The thought of his student teaching practicum was simultaneously a dream and an absolute nightmare. And did he mention no pay for any of it?

His first week ended with a long lecture on professional appearance and how they were expected to dress the same on campus as they would in their practicum classroom. Which meant no sneakers, no ripped jeans, no T-shirts, and “A tie wouldn’t be remiss, either,” his professor concluded.

That was how Christian found himself trawling every thrift store he could find that Friday, searching for a suitably “professional” new wardrobe among the racks of ratty old men’s jackets and threadbare golf shirts before finally giving in and heading to a department store instead, where he spent money he didn’t have—well, money he did have, but was supposed to be for groceries—on clothes he didn’t want.

“Mall madness?” asked Max as Christian collapsed into Noah’s recliner, arms weighed down with bags full of overpriced pressed slacks and respectable button-downs.

“Something like that,” Christian replied, not willing to get into it over such a toothless barb, although he could have just as easily said, Some of us work for a living.

Max was lounging around, looking not even the remotest bit “respectable” and enjoying every minute of it, damn him. Sprawled across the couch like he was about to ask someone to “Draw me like one of your French girls,” he was wearing a poppy red pair of skinny jeans with black high-top Chucks (never mind Rob’s rules against shoes in the house) and a black V-necked T-shirt that showed off the lean muscles of his arms and the upper left corner of the vibrantly coloured tattoo over his heart.

“Actually . . .” Christian said, latching onto fleeting inspiration, “It’s for work. Well, school. School. Work. School.”

Max raised an eyebrow, and Christian could sense the smug amusement at his flailing.

“You know how it is.” He paused for effect. “Don’t you?” It wasn’t as elegant as it had sounded in his head, but he’d still, in his roundabout way, put it out there. Confronted Max with the question, without actually saying it: What the hell do you even do?

Last week he’d paid for those pizzas. That flat of expensive water. Even the clothes on his back. Rent, of course. He had to get that money somewhere, and the fact that he wasn’t upfront about it like a normal person was driving Christian insane.

“Not really,” Max replied, a shrug in his voice, and reached down to scratch his flat belly just above the waistline of his jeans.

Damn you, you shameless, smooth-talking bastard.

The scratching turned into an absentminded stroke, drifting fingers lifting the hem of his top to expose an inch or so of skin. An inch or so of skin bisected by a narrow line of dark hair.

Christian looked away.

“So all those clothes . . .” Max ventured, “they’re for that teaching thing you’re doing, right?”

It was the first time they’d actually talked. Christian felt kind of guilty for using it as an opportunity to twist the guy’s arm for information.

“Yeah. I knew I was going to have to buy that stuff anyway—they hold student teachers to completely different standards than the actual professionals, and to be honest it’s kind of bullshit, like why do I have to wear a tie when the guy I’m sharing a classroom with is wearing a T-shirt and fucking flip-flops—but, uh . . .”

Max raised an eyebrow, obviously trying not to smile.

“But not so soon. I figured I had six months before my practicum started, but no, apparently we don’t just have to dress like this when we’re teaching, we have to dress like it all the fucking time. Kind of a culture shock after undergrad, when you could roll out of bed and go to lecture in your pyjama pants and a Che Guevara T-shirt, you know?”

An awkward laugh. “Uh, not really, man. I dropped out of high school. Couldn’t stand to stay in one place long enough to do the whole school thing. I got my GED, but that’s it.”

“Oh. Well, um . . .”

“But I still know who Che is, so don’t think I’m some fucking idiot.”

“Got it.”

They sat in silence for a while, Christian trying to come up with a convenient excuse to leave. He had to make a phone call? He needed to take a shit? He was late for a webcam session with a potential mail-order bride?

Was there a reason most of his excuses seemed desperate to establish him as straight?

“Why do you do that, man? I couldn’t.” Max rolled onto his side, eyeing Christian from over the arm of the couch. He was hugging himself, a gesture Christian read as self-conscious, except that didn’t make sense.

“Do what?”

“Do a job that wants to change who you are.”

“Wh-what? What do you mean by that? I mean, it doesn’t? It doesn’t. Does it?”

“You can’t drink. You can’t smoke weed. Now you can’t even wear your own clothes. Is it worth it?” His dark eyes were fathomless, patient and expectant and oh God was he actually being serious here? Was he asking a serious question?

Christian wasn’t prepared for the possibility of that. Glib douchebaggery, he could handle. Could even brush off with a joke. But not this. “Can’t swear, either,” he answered, out of some strange desire to up the ante on Max’s assessment of the situation. “And if you think what you drink or smoke or wear makes you who you are, that’s pretty sad.”

Max sat up straight, levelling at Christian the same serious look, except tempered this time by anger. “And I think it’s sad that you don’t get the fact that the clothes are just the tip of the iceberg, here. If they think they have the right to control that, then what else— You know what? Whatever. Forget it.”

He got up. Strode out of the living room without another word.

Christian was left sitting bewildered on the couch, trying to wrap his head around Max’s outburst. And the question Christian hadn’t answered.

Is it worth it?

# # #

Of course it was!

Christian scrubbed at his head furiously, staring down at the shower taps as if they were Max’s smug under-achieving face.

Because while you and every other normal boy were out playing soldiers and cops ’n’ robbers and pee-firemen, I was downstairs in my mother’s basement, using the walls as a chalkboard to teach every girl in the neighbourhood how to do their letters and making them all raise their hands to speak. And okay, maybe that sounds like a power trip, and maybe it was a power trip, but it’s not anymore. It’s so much more.

Something worth the sacrifices he’d made, and not just the clothes and the booze and all the other millions of ways he found himself editing himself, trying to cultivate a life and a public image that was suitably untouchable for a teacher. The money. The time. The sheer fucking effort.

And they are sacrifices, Max. As in, things I give up willingly to achieve my dreams. Not that you know anything about that.

He ducked under the shower, half to wash the shampoo out, and half to cool his fucking head. (Because what started as a hot shower never ended as one in this goddamn house, but that was beside the point right now.)

Sacrifices. Not things taken away from me.

God. Get over it, Christian.

Three days, and he was still rehearsing speeches and coming up with (not so) scathing comebacks. Three days!

He should have been focused on his studies—after all, he had a practice grading rubric to create by Friday that he hadn’t even looked at—or maybe on some creative ways to make some quick cash before all this ramen he was eating killed him from malnutrition. And then, if he still had spare time after all that, he could obsess a bit more about how truly fucked up his personal life was becoming. His aunt. Okay, his aunt’s illness. His mother, even, and the horrible evil thoughts he’d been having lately of contacting her and making his return to the closet a permanent thing.

But no. That would be too far. It was one thing to pretend for a class of students and their parents to be a person devoid of sexual desire, and maybe once he was comfortable (read: tenured) settle down with a “roommate,” but bringing his mother into it would be to give up entirely. Live a real lie.

He wondered what Max would think of that.

Man, fuck Max.

That small wiry body bent forward on Christian’s bed, ass up and know-it-all mouth buried in the sheets. Christian buried—

No! Don’t fuck Max! Don’t fuck Max at all!

Christian already had his half-hard cock in his hand, and now he was staring at it like it was some kind of treacherous alien thing. Okay, so the celibacy plan wasn’t working out too great. A guy had to let the pressure off somehow. He was a teacher, not a saint.

But God, anybody but Max. Bad enough to have the hots for any of his roommates—it seemed like a handwritten invitation for all manner of drama and awkwardness, especially since he still didn’t intend on coming out to any of them—but Max? At least Austin was clean-cut, a fellow student with just as much reason (theoretically, of course) to keep it in the closet. At least Noah had a steady job with an explainable income to match. And even though he didn’t have the vaguest physical attraction to him, at least Rob seemed too socially stunted to do anything other than pine away.

Max was a fucking minefield.

A sexy, mysterious, bad-boy minefield with great arms and tight jeans that left very little to the imagination.

Christian groaned in defeat, bracing himself against the grimy tiled wall with one hand while the other got on with the shameful business of manhandling his dick.

“Nobody has to know,” he said aloud, surprised to hear himself panting already. After all, as guilty as he felt, he was alone in a locked bathroom, and none of his roommates read minds. He could do this, wash his hands of it (literally and figuratively, um), and forget about it. Yes. That.

He fell head-first into the fantasy. Pounding into Max from behind, squeezing his ass and thighs, biting those arms, turning him over and licking and sucking on his nipples. Kissing him.

Kissing him?

Christian shook the thought out of his head and gave himself a punishing squeeze, which tragically backfired since it served only to make him buck into his own hand for more.

Not kissing, he thought to himself sternly, keeping up the rough pace. Just fucking. Max wasn’t the type of guy you held hands and cuddled and kissed with. You fucked him. You sucked him. Yes.

Mmm, or maybe he sucked you. Max’s full lips wrapped around the shaft of his cock, so plush and fucking luxurious . . . Yes, yes.

His conscious mind resurfaced. He’d covered the front wall of the shower in cum. There were even a few drops on the taps. But God, he felt good. Sated. The first time he’d felt just . . . satisfied in a long time. He shuddered through an aftershock, eyes rolling back in his head with the sheer decadent pleasure of it.

And then somebody knocked on the door.

“Christian?” Rob’s small voice called through the door. “Christian? Are you almost done in there?”

Fuck!

Christian slapped at the shower stream, trying to splash the evidence of his undoing off the wall. “Yeah, um, yeah, just a second, coming!” Oh, bad choice of words. “Just uh . . . just washing the shampoo out of my hair?”

Out, damned spot!

Splashing was no use. He reached down, wiping the tiles with his bare hands, smothering the urge to gag. Pretend it’s shampoo. Yeah. Shampoo. Nothing wrong with getting that on your hands.

“Okay . . .” Rob was apparently content to wait right outside the door until Christian finished. Awkward little fuck. What should have taken thirty seconds suddenly felt like it was taking hours. “Well, uh, I kind of accidentally answered your phone because you left it in the kitchen and it was ringing off the hook and uh—sorry? But it’s your aunt calling. Do you want me to tell her you’ll call her back?”

“No!” Christian shouted. He yanked the taps closed and leapt from the tub, knowing full well he hadn’t finished cleaning his mess and just plain not caring, just the same as he didn’t care right now that Rob had been presumptuous enough to answer his cell. “No! No! Coming! Coming now!” He threw a towel around his hips and fell out the bathroom door, snatching his cell from Rob’s hand.

“Auntie,” he greeted, breezing past Rob and into his room without a word of thanks or reproval for taking his call. He slammed the door shut behind him. Locked it. “How are you doing? Everything okay?”

She laughed. “Your hair grey yet, Christian?”

He knew she was joking, but he still turned to his bedroom mirror and prodded at the mess of wet curls that was quickly rising into its usual cloud around his head. “No, Auntie,” he replied.

“Do you want grey hair?”

“No.”

“Then slow down, bwoy.”

“Sorry.”

“I haven’t talked to you in weeks. How you been?”

He sighed in relief. Ever since she’d first told him over the phone about her cancer, every single call from her gave him the same feelings of anxiety. He was always expecting bad news. The worst news, if that were even possible.

But no, she’d just called to talk. Of course she had. He hadn’t put out the effort to call her in weeks, and wasn’t that just bullshit, after he’d promised himself to never take another moment with her for granted?

“I’ve been busy with school— No. No excuses. I’m sorry, Auntie. Yeah, I’m busy, but I should make time.”

“Yes, you should. But stop the flagellation. Tell me about school. You changed your mind about being a teacher yet?”

She always joked like that, saying no reality of teaching could ever live up to his fantasies of saving the world one kid and one report card at a time. That he’d get burnt out when it wasn’t all Dead Poets Society and once you realize it, you can come work for me. She was just teasing, of course. She knew how much this mattered to him, even though she didn’t understand it. To her, nothing was worth compromising her strange, glorious self. When it came to the ties argument, she and Max would definitely be on the same side.

That was why he loved her. That screw-the-naysayers, be-who-you-are worldview, as inconvenient as it was now, had saved his life, once. Not just his physical life. His soul.

Was he really going to throw all that away with this back-into-the-closet experiment?

“Nope,” he replied, finally. “But they got me wearing a tie and trying not to use slang. I don’t know how much longer I’m gonna last.”

“You’ll last right through to the end and you know it. Stubborn goat.”

For a while after that, they just talked like old times while Christian towelled his hair. He told her about his new place, smoothing over some of the more unsavoury aspects of the structural integrity of the house. Told her about his roommates, but briskly changed the subject when she asked if he was sweet on any of them. And then, when they’d gotten past all the juicier gossip, he told her about school. The assignments. His fears about his practicum.

“Did your student loan come through all right?” she asked.

Christian’s heart dropped into his stomach. It should have been an innocuous question. With anybody else, it would be.

But not with her.

“Auntie, do you need to tell me something? No, never mind. I’m gonna come see you. Right now. You at home?”

“No, no, don’t come see me. You have homework. Way too much on your plate. How about you come around on Saturday instead and I take you out to lunch?”

“Nope, not an option. I’m putting on my shoes right now.” He wasn’t, of course. He was still in his towel, actually. But she didn’t know that. “You can’t convince me not to come, so you better just tell me. Are you at home?”

“Yes, yes,” she sighed.

All through his BA, she’d been the one to foot the bill. Happy to, she’d said. What else is family for? Every bill, she wrote him a check. Tuition. Room and board. Books. Bus passes. Athletic fees. Every single cent of it came out of her pocket.

Until suddenly it didn’t.

A few months back, nearing the end of his last semester of undergrad, she’d called and asked him how he was doing for money. Whether he’d gotten any scholarships. Were his res fees all paid up. Finally, after dancing around the issue for as long as possible, she’d admitted to not having the money to give him a full ride anymore. It wasn’t the money that made her so ashamed, it was why she didn’t have it.

Because she was sick.

from Joyfully Jay

Heidi Belleau . . . [C]reates wonderfully likeable characters, . . . {W}ho work their way into your heart.

from Hearts on Fire Reviews

Heidi Belleau, it seems you have a fan in me. I'm anxiously awaiting more.

from LeAnn's Book Reviews

[A]n awesome read. [F]un yet touching . . . Heidi Belleau hit it out of the park.

from My Fiction Nook

[A] funny and thought-provoking read . . . [A]wesome.

from The Novel Approach

The thing I liked best . . . was the internal dialogue that Ms. Belleau gave us access to.

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