Controlled Burn

Controlled Burn by Erin McLellan
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At eighteen, Joel Smith’s life fell to pieces. His boyfriend died in a car crash while reading a sext from him, the local newspaper outed them both in the aftermath, and his parents got a divorce. Joel did everything possible to outrun his past: he moved to Oklahoma for college, legally changed his name, and started over.

Since then, he hasn’t let anyone get close—not his classmates, not his roommate, and definitely not his hookups. The strategy has served him well for over three years. Why would he change it now?

But Joel doesn’t plan on the articles about his boyfriend’s death being used as a case study in one of his classes. And he doesn’t plan on Paulie McPherson, who is sweet and giving and fun. In Paulie, he finds a home for the first time in years.

But love isn’t simple, and lies have a tendency to get in the way. Joel must figure out if he’ll allow his grief to rule him, or if his connection with Paulie is worth letting all of his walls come tumbling down.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

Sweat prickled on my neck as soon as I walked into the auditorium classroom. Why was it always hot as balls in here? It was going to make it hard to stay awake today.

I slunk to my normal seat at the very back. I would gladly skip Ethics in News and Media if I could. It was a huge class, so it wasn’t like Dr. Milner would notice—it wasn’t like he even knew my fucking name. But his snooty TA, Jacob, took attendance, and it was something like fifteen percent of our grade.

“Well, hello, Joel Smith!” I looked up blearily at the owner of the purring voice, only to be confronted by my obnoxiously perky classmate Paulie McPherson. “Rough night?” he asked with a chuckle.

Paulie was this cute, swishy guy who had claimed me as a class buddy because he’d recognized me from the local gay bar. His name, he told me before the first class, was Paul, but everyone who was anyone called him Paulie. That first day, he grabbed a seat next to me, told me he had a 4.0 GPA, and always found a responsible person to befriend in case the world ended and he had to miss class. “Then I’ll be able to borrow your notes, and you can borrow mine if you miss,” he’d said. “You take good notes, right?” After a mumbled reply from me, he’d smiled and asked, “You’re not dumb, are you? I could go find someone else.” I assured him I was not dumb and would take excellent notes on days he was absent. Besides that exchange, we’d hardly spoken.

Or, well, I’d hardly spoken. Paulie always tried to draw me into conversation.

Good luck with that.

“I’m okay,” I told Paulie. He shrugged, settled into his seat beside me, and arranged his pile of sticky notes and different-colored highlighters.

This was definitely my least-favorite class. Journalism was not my thing. But my advisor had “advised” me to take it since I still needed my mandatory ethics credit, and the class was notorious for being easy. Which was what I wanted in my general education courses. Easy.

The class clatter quieted as Dr. Milner approached the podium, and his TA dimmed the lights. The projector flicked on. Can I sleep without anyone noticing? I’d stayed out at the Lumberyard way too late yesterday, especially for a Wednesday night. And the evening had been a complete bust: not only had I gone home alone, but Travis, my best friend and housemate, had gotten lucky and kept me up even later. Loud bastard.

I laid my head on the little tablet desk and closed my eyes.

Dr. Milner cleared his throat. “As most of you know from the syllabus, today we’re focusing on the treatment of minors in the press, and we’ll continue to evaluate what constitutes private versus public matters.” Dr. Milner plodded on for a couple of minutes, and I tried to ignore the scratching of Paulie’s pen as he took notes.

I pulled my jacket off the back of my chair and folded it up under my head as a pillow. The hot room and the hum of the professor’s voice were going to lull me to sleep.

“Our case study is from a little-known incident in a small town in Nebraska, in which a young man died in a car accident while reading a text message from his alleged boyfriend. After his death, he and his boyfriend, both minors at the time, were outed by the press. Jacob is passing around a packet of the articles we’ll look at today, the first of which is titled ‘Online Exclusive: Local Baseball Star Dies Reading Sext from Boyfriend.’”

I jerked my head up and almost tumbled from the chair. The newspaper article on the projector at the front of the class caught my eye.

Horror climbed my esophagus like bile. No, wait. That was actual bile.

“Please take a few minutes to read the article,” Dr. Milner continued. “Make sure to consider . . .”

Dr. Milner droned on, and I swallowed convulsively so as not to blow chunks. The girl next to me handed me a stack of packets, and I took one and passed them on to Paulie.

Diego stared at me from the front page of the packet. It was his senior picture, and even though the copy was black-and-white, I knew his sweater was green and his eyes light brown. I knew he hadn’t liked this picture as much as the one in his letter jacket.

This couldn’t be happening. I’d outrun this.

Everyone in the room was rustling around, trying to find the article in their packet, but I didn’t need to read it to know what it said. The article quoted a source from the local police department that claimed Diego and his boyfriend had been sexting at the time of his death. It had the contents of one message: I love your mouth. You have the sweetest mouth in the world, D.

My hands shook as I reached for my backpack. I couldn’t be here. I couldn’t do this. I knocked my packet onto the floor, and it flopped open to another article: “Sweet Mouth Texter Incident May Lead to New Driving Legislation.”

The room spun sickly. For some reason, that news article always hurt the worst. Probably because it proved the depth of Diego’s parents’ hate. They hated me so much that they started a pointless vendetta with a slimy politician from their church to penalize people if they texted someone they knew was driving. It hadn’t worked, but it still hurt.

Dr. Milner’s voice filtered in through my panic as I shoved everything into my backpack. “Jared Smith’s name wasn’t released in the press until he turned eighteen, a couple weeks after Diego died, but a substantial amount of personal information about him had already been exposed by one journalist in particular. She was eventually fired due to . . .”

Three years and two states between my past and me; I’d changed everything to escape it. Even my name was different. Dr. Milner had no way of knowing that I had any connection to that boy in the news article with the perfect lips and killer smile.

Acid rose in my throat, and thick saliva filled my mouth. I stood up, ready to flee. Which was what I always did. Run. A weight clamped on my elbow, holding me steady.

From very far away I heard, “Joel, honey, you okay?” The room was tunneling to fuzzy gray, but I recognized Paulie’s sweet, lilting voice. I felt like the ground had turned to mush, and it was only affecting me.

“Joel, you look like you’re going to be sick. You gonna ralph?”

I nodded. My perpetually weak stomach lurched a little. He scrambled over his backpack and rushed me out of the classroom with surprising efficiency.

By the time we made it down the long hallway to the bathroom, my dizziness had cleared, but blood still pumped in my temples. I told Paulie I was fine, and instead of retreating to one of the bathroom stalls “to ralph,” I slid down the wall to sit on the floor across from the urinals, bathroom germs be damned. Paulie wrinkled his nose before crouching beside me.

“If you’re going to puke, you better warn me so I can move,” he murmured before his soft hand landed on my forehead. Hysterical laughter tried to escape my chest, but I pushed it down and closed my eyes.

My God, I was not well. If seeing those articles for the first time in years could undo me so completely, I was obviously still a big fucking mess, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise to me. I lived in my head every day. It wasn’t pretty.

After a couple of minutes of deep breathing on my part and endless questions on Paulie’s—“Is it food poisoning? Are you hungover? Do you have the flu? How do you feel? I’m the worst nursemaid ever. I need you to tell me if you’re gonna ralph”—I finally opened my eyes.

“It’s fine. I’m fine. I’m not going to ralph, but I can’t . . . I don’t think I should go back to class.”

“Well, let me drive you home, honey. You look positively green,” Paulie said.

“I live right across the street. It’s one of the reasons I took this class,” I said.

“Well then, I’ll walk you home. It’ll be a pleasure,” he said with a sassy laugh. “Let me just go grab our stuff and tell the TA.”

Paulie was on his feet so quickly and gracefully that the room spun again. As he left the bathroom, I called after him weakly, “But then no one will be here to take notes for you.” He either didn’t hear me, or didn’t care about class notes today, because he didn’t react at all.

He also didn’t question me on the walk to my house, which was a relief. I didn’t want to delve into the pain of losing Diego without either the ability to sleep it off or a lot of liquid courage, and I simply did not feel strong enough to dredge up a lie for Paulie’s sake. The last thirty minutes, from the moment class had begun to the whole walk with Paulie, was almost like a dream—one where all of a sudden you’re naked in public or the nice guy next to you has a knife to your ribs. A bad dream. The type that makes you sweat through your pajamas and grind your teeth so hard your jaw aches for days. But nope. This sweat was purely the waking kind.

So I shut down. Clicked my brain off like a light switch, something I was rather adept at, and guided Paulie to my home, which was an ancient, crappy two-bedroom house that was a five-minute walk from the campus cutoff. Paulie’s silence left me little to do but distract myself by staring at him. I’d never really given him more than a passing glance before. He was unfairly pretty in a slightly androgynous way. He made my skin prickle, but I didn’t find him attractive, exactly. Sure, he was attractive from a purely objective definition of beauty, but he wasn’t really my type. Short for a man, probably only about five foot seven, with dark hair shaved close to his scalp and a square jaw. He was already fighting a five-o’clock shadow, even this early in the afternoon, and his skull trim left his face exposed and open. Yeah, pretty.

I stared, and he must have felt it because he glanced over at me and smiled. His lips looked plump and wet, and I was struck by the slight gap between his two front teeth.

“You have a gap,” I said because I was a dork who wasn’t coping well at all. “I’ve never noticed it.”

He side-eyed me like I was losing my nut, which was obviously the case. “I don’t think you’ve ever looked at me before today, Joel. It’s been quite the hit to my ego. Must be losing my charm.” He glanced at me through eyelashes so black and thick I thought he might be wearing makeup. There was teasing in his voice, and it made my stomach dip.

He smiled again and skipped ahead of me. At least for a two-minute space of time, I hadn’t thought of Diego.

The two men couldn’t have been more different.

I let Paulie in through our front door, and we were immediately confronted with Travis, in his underwear, lying on the couch playing the ukulele. Poorly. He played every instrument poorly.

Paulie gasped out, “Well, hello, Hot Pants!” in his musical baritone.

Travis was seriously smoking. A six-foot-three black guy with long muscles and a spanking fetish—which, like his near-nakedness and bad musical ability, I was used to—Travis turned heads everywhere he went.

“Hey! I know you,” Travis said. “Paulie, right? I’ve seen you at the Yard. You’re a good dancer.”

“See, at least some people notice me, honey,” Paulie whispered to me darkly before wandering over to the other side of the living room, where some of Travis’s weird avant-garde decorations covered the wall.

When Paulie turned his back, Travis swiveled to me, and his eyes bulged like they were going to pop out of his head. Travis and I both had men over frequently enough, but not usually before 10 p.m., and he had certainly never seen me with anyone like Paulie.

Travis’s brow furrowed. “You all right, man? You look terrible.”

I felt terrible but didn’t exactly relish hearing that it was so obvious.

“He got sick in class today. That’s why I walked him home,” Paulie piped in from across the room. He swiveled back to me. “You’re still a little pale. Maybe you should get something to drink.”

“You’re probably right. Want anything? We have beer, Dr Pepper, and water.” I headed for the kitchen. Was it too early for beer? Some days I wished for an IV drip. The thought of drinking anything, even water, made my stomach flop, but I’d gladly take the buzz of beer over the ringing in my ears.

“Milk is fine,” Paulie called after me. I hadn’t mentioned milk, but he sounded distracted. Travis had that effect on people.

After stealing some of Travis’s expensive organic chocolate milk, for which I would surely owe him later, and downing a huge glass of water, not beer, I was less nauseous, but it still felt like a weight was pressing down on my chest.

I led Paulie to my bedroom, and he plopped down on my bed.

“Oh! This is nice,” he said and patted the mattress next to him. “Comfy too. So much room for activities.” He smiled up at me, and I wasn’t sure if he was flirting or if that was just how he talked to everyone. And, well . . . shit. He was so not my type—he wasn’t quite anonymous enough for me—and I didn’t want to give him the wrong impression. I sat in my desk chair on the other side of the room.

“Your boyfriend is pretty hot,” he said slyly.

I narrowed my eyes slightly. Travis and I did not give off boyfriend vibes.

“He is, but he’s not my boyfriend.”

“Oh, good. Think he’d want to be mine?” He grinned at me. A twinge of something—disappointment that I’d read his interest wrong, that he was interested in Travis, maybe?—echoed through my gut. That pang made me more honest than I probably had a right to be.

“That depends, Paulie. Trav is a bottom, and he likes it rough. You think you could do that for him?”

Paulie blew a big raspberry, which made me laugh and his cheeks pink. “He wants a bossy top? That’s definitely not me.” He sipped the chocolate milk demurely, both hands wrapped around the cup like a child.

“Why not?” I wanted to hear him say it, to hear him say he wasn’t into the things Travis was.

“Well, you have eyes, sweetheart. Everyone assumes I’m a femme-y bottom. I know what I look like, and I don’t fight it anymore.”

I flinched. I’d goaded those words from him. And I wanted to apologize, to tell Paulie that appearance wasn’t everything, and that no one should ever make him feel like he had to be a certain way in bed because of how he looked or spoke or walked. But then he threw a proverbial bucket of ice water on my head, and all those nice, conciliatory words I wanted to say disappeared.

“The TA said we could complete the class assignment together and turn it in next Tuesday before class. We just have to create a list of all of the ethical issues in those texting articles, and then write a couple of paragraphs in support of the journalist’s decision to write the articles and the choices she made.”

All the muscles in my body clenched up and bile burned my throat again. Fuck no. Absolutely not. “I’ll take the zero,” I gasped. Then, before Paulie could catch on to my weird behavior, I said, “A zero on a class assignment won’t hurt too bad, and I have a lot going on this weekend. You’ll get a better grade without having to work with me on it.”

I felt pretty proud of how normal that excuse sounded, until Paulie’s eyes narrowed. He stood up slowly, sat the half-gone milk on my bedside table, and walked toward me. He touched my forehead again and sighed. “You still feel clammy. You should get some rest. I’ll take notes for you if you’re not better by class on Tuesday.” Then he grabbed his backpack and left.

Low voices reached me from the living room and then Travis’s booming laugh. The front door shut a couple of seconds later. Something terrible and unwanted—like loneliness—rushed through me. I clenched my eyes shut until the wave of emotions dissipated, but I couldn’t deny, couldn’t ignore that I wished Paulie had run his fingers through my hair. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had done that to me.


Chapter Two

The Lumberyard was the only gay bar in western Oklahoma, and it was within walking distance of the Farm College campus and our house. When Travis and I slipped through the entrance, the dance floor was already pulsing with music and the sway of bodies. The beat of each song sang through my blood, much like the two shots Travis pushed on me as soon as we reached the bar. I was not a tequila guy. Unless I was eager to get shit-faced, and let’s be honest, I was. But 8 p.m. was a little too early to get trashed, and I needed to make it to midnight. The memories of Diego were always worse after midnight.

I tried to tell Travis I was still sick from yesterday, when he pushed a third shot on me, but he hadn’t believed I was sick in the first place. He’d accused me of an “afternoon delight gone wrong.”

And, thank God, a big guy in a leather jacket caught Trav’s eye about ten minutes in, so I’d get a temporary reprieve to let the alcohol catch up with me. Sure enough, within minutes, he abandoned me at the bar without even a good-bye.

A rowdy pack of men and women came through the front door with a gust of night-chilled air. I sized all of them up out of habit as they filed past me. Paulie was toward the back of the group, his arm around the shoulders of a petite woman with short black hair. They looked striking, like twin anime characters, all big eyes and delicate features.

My heartbeat sped up as he got closer. I wasn’t sure I was happy to see him. My main goal for the night was to get fucked or drunk until the Diego in my head disappeared. I wasn’t going to fool around with Paulie, and I wasn’t getting drunk with him either, so it shouldn’t matter one bit to me if he was at the Yard or not. But now, with the recollection of Paulie’s irrepressible kindness fresh in my mind, it was impossible not to be drawn to him at least a little.

Paulie didn’t appear to see me sitting at the bar, until he was ordering. I leaned over to tell the bartender that Paulie’s first drink was on me and bought one for the woman as well. Paulie grinned at me and sauntered over until we were side-by-side. The music beat so loudly we couldn’t hear each other speak without getting really close—closer than I wanted—so I just smiled back at him. Thankfully, he didn’t ask me if I was still sick. I didn’t want to think about that right now. Soon, when I could no longer keep the memories of Diego at bay, I would get trashed or find someone to blow. But I wasn’t there yet.

His friend shotgunned her drink—a gin and tonic, which you were probably not supposed to shotgun—and then grabbed my hand, passed my beer to Paulie, and shouted at me, “I wanna dance, and you’ll do.”

I only resisted a bit. I wasn’t used to women pulling me anywhere, and I was worried I’d screw this whole dancing thing up. She probably didn’t want to bump and grind, which was really all I was good for.

Thankfully, a pop song with a catchy chorus flared up just as we made it to the middle of the dance floor. In the space of a few seconds, the dancers around us quit dirty dancing and began jumping to the beat. When the chorus started, the entire club shouted the words, and it was ridiculous and perfect and a rush of giddiness bubbled through me.

“I’m Angie,” Paulie’s friend yelled after a spin that put her right in my personal space. I shouted my name in her ear, and she hip bumped me in acknowledgment.

“Are you Paulie’s sister?”

She stopped dancing, so I stopped jumping, even though I was finally getting the hang of it.

“No. We’re not related. Thank God. His family is a shit show.” She rolled her eyes and resumed bouncing and twirling around me.

After several songs, Angie grabbed my hand. “Come on, I need another drink.”

Paulie smirked at us as we approached. I leaned against the bar beside him and scanned the room for Travis, who was still talking to the guy in the leather jacket. Without another word, Angie kissed Paulie on the cheek and flounced off to the rest of their group, where a bucket of Coors Light awaited.

“Enjoy dancing with a girl?” Paulie asked in my ear. His breath was warm, and it tickled my neck.

I couldn’t help but smile because I had enjoyed it—the whisper of his breath and dancing with Angie.

“It was a first for me. I never even danced with a girl at prom,” I admitted.

Diego and I had gone to prom our junior year with a big group of friends. We’d spent the night getting drunk on the cheap liquor he’d smuggled inside in his cowboy-boot flask. Afterward, I’d nursed him as he got sick on the side of the road. I could still see the glisten of sweat on the back of his neck and hear the tremble in his voice as he apologized over and over.

I hadn’t gone to senior prom. Diego had no longer been there, and I just couldn’t.

“Dancing with women is the best. There’s no pressure or expectation,” Paulie said.

“There would be no pressure or expectation if you wanted to dance with me either.”

I didn’t know where that came from, because I used dancing almost solely as a means for hooking up, and suddenly, I was offering Paulie the opposite. But I understood why he’d want to dance without the weight of casual hookups pressing in on him. It was hard to let loose and enjoy dancing when it was only about sex, when you knew your partner was judging you and trying to decide how fuckable you were. It could suck the joy right out of it. But dancing had never been about joy for me. And I had never wanted to dance just for the fun of it. Until now.

His dark eyes held mine, and I wondered again if his sooty lashes were the product of mascara or if he really was that pretty. But before I could ask about his makeup habits, he downed his beer, handed me mine, and waited while I did the same.

Then we danced.

Travis had said that Paulie was a good dancer, and he was. He blew me away. His chest and stomach, visible under his tight shirt, flexed and twisted with the music, and his hips rolled in a hypnotic rhythm. He moved like oil over water, fluid and sexy. Everyone noticed him, and I couldn’t believe I never had. After a couple of minutes, another guy stepped up behind him and put his hands on Paulie’s hips. Paulie’s shoulder immediately clenched under my hand.

I pulled Paulie flush against me and spun him away from the touchy bastard. We ended up with my back to the other dancer and Paulie’s back against my chest. I had one arm across his torso, like a wrestling hold, and the other hand on his hip. He soon relaxed and fell liquid again. The tendon on the side of his neck caught my eye, and I followed its path to the smooth, delicate skin behind his ear.

Paulie turned in my arms and grinned up at me, his face flushed and his adorable gap fully on display. He said, “Thank you,” and I shrugged it off.

We danced for three more songs, and I just had fun—actual fun—and I placed myself between every dancing interloper and Paulie because I wanted to be that guy for once. I wanted to be a friend that he could dance with and not have to worry about being groped or humped.

After we stopped for another drink, a guy I had screwed around with the year before stopped to say hi. Alex Oleastro, all pierced and tatted and hot as sin, was also incredibly nice and one of my best lays ever. Plus he’d never expected our hookups to lead to a relationship, so in a way, he’d been perfect for me. He asked Paulie to dance, and before I could blink, they were off to the dance floor, Alex leading Paulie by his hand. Right on the edge of the crowd, Paulie turned around to look at me and mouthed, Oh my God! before pretending to grip Alex’s ass. I laughed wildly, too loud and all alone.

While they were dancing, Travis resurfaced from a hot and heavy make out session with Leather Jacket to tell me they were going back to our place, and it was nice of him to warn me. The sound of spanking could be jarring if you didn’t expect it.

Paulie and Alex danced for another song—this one slow and sexy. I got hot watching it. Both of them could move, and they weren’t being moderate with the touching. By the end of the song, Paulie had his head tilted back on Alex’s shoulder, and Alex had one hand splayed across Paulie’s stomach under his shirt. With every sway, there was a flash of Paulie’s pale waist. They were both flushed and smiling, Alex whispering in Paulie’s ear.

As the music crescendoed and cut off, Paulie tipped his head off Alex’s shoulder, and his eyes met mine from across the bar. Shame rushed through me; I felt like I’d been caught watching porn. I forced a smile to cover my discomfort, and then I waved to let him know I was leaving. He turned back and said something to Alex before squeezing through the edge of the crowd to reach me.

I laughed at the excitement radiating off of him. He seemed like a kid about to open Christmas presents.

“That dude is fucking hot!” he said, fanning himself.

I leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “And he knows how to use that tongue piercing, let me tell you.” Paulie made a strangled noise full of heavy consonants, and I laughed at him again. “You be a good boy tonight, Paulie, and have fun.”

He smiled up at me, but it was a different grin than the wide-open one he flashed around without censor. It was soft and shy, and my stomach clenched at the vulnerability there.

Then he leaned forward and kissed me.

The kiss surprised me so much I was still thinking about it hours later while I lay in bed waiting for sleep to take me. It had been a friend-kiss. Just a quick cling of dry lips, no tongue, no breath. But I wasn’t used to getting friend-kisses. I didn’t have the type of friends who kissed me in a nonsexual way. I didn’t really have friends, period, besides Travis, which should probably bother me but didn’t.

I had friends once. They were ephemera.

I was half tempted to go ask Travis why we didn’t ever platonically kiss. I’d seen him greet countless friends that way, but never me. He and Leather Jacket were pretty quiet now, so I probably wouldn’t be interrupting much.

But I was too scared. Scared because I knew the answer Travis would give if he were totally honest.

You’re cold. You cut yourself off. You don’t put yourself out there.

As if being open was the ultimate expression of being a good person. Well, fuck that.

I didn’t want to fall into the dark, oppressive hole that held every reason why I kept people at a distance. I didn’t want to fall asleep thinking about Diego again, not when he was so close to the surface already, pushing against my lungs until I couldn’t breathe without imagining the smell of his teenybopper cologne. Not when I could so clearly see the bliss in his eyes as I’d taken his virginity, or worse, the agony I imagined had flitted across his features as he was impaled on a fence post.

So instead I imagined Paulie and Alex together, which made me feel dirty, but so what? They would have fun, and Paulie deserved that. He so generously gave other people fun, gave me fun.

And, frankly, I didn’t deserve that sort of gift.


Chapter Three

The Tuesday after my meltdown in class and our friend-kiss at the Yard, I asked Paulie if he wanted to come over to do homework. I didn’t know why I asked. We were saying good-bye, and then the words were suddenly out there and I couldn’t exactly take them back. Yet, as the weeks tripped by and he kept walking home with me after class, I was thankful I’d extended the invite.

Paulie and Travis developed a fast friendship, even though—I couldn’t help but notice—they weren’t kissing friends. Travis liked that Paulie was a bit of a natural diva, so Paulie vamped it up around him. They could banter back and forth so quickly my head would spin. And suddenly I found myself in possession of two friends.

Paulie and I never went to the Lumberyard together. He had a standing date on Fridays with his wild group of friends, who were evidently all accounting majors like him. But if we were both there, we always danced several songs together, and he always kissed me good-bye.

By the end of September, we were hanging out several times a week and eating lunch together after class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. At lunch one Thursday, Paulie told me he would see me at the Yard on Friday, but he didn’t show up with his buddies. I snagged Angie and asked if he was sick.

“He had a family issue come up. He didn’t tell you?” she said with a weird smile. I liked Angie, but I always felt off-footed when we spoke, like she was in on a joke I couldn’t fathom. “You need to ask him about it, Joel. I can’t believe he hasn’t told you about his family! It’s totally nutty, and he’s normally super open about it.”

I never asked about Paulie’s family because then he would ask about mine. And I wasn’t going there unless forced. Anytime he brought up the past or high school or boyfriends, I simply maneuvered the conversation away from me. He never seemed to notice.

I didn’t see Paulie until a week later, right before our Thursday class. He had even missed class on Tuesday, and I’d actually paid attention and taken excellent notes for him. I figured he would tell me why he was gone all weekend. Instead, he asked, “Miss me?” and then launched into a story about a drunk booty call from a guy he was friends with freshman year. By the time I caught up with his story, he was almost done.

“He was so drunk and only about every other word made sense. And it seemed like the ones that did make sense were all ‘cock and balls.’ At last, I get it through his thick head that I am not going to leave my apartment at 2 a.m. on a weeknight to bend over for him, and he responds, clear as day, ‘Jesus, Paulie, you tease. You could have just told me you weren’t interested.’” Paulie giggled at his own story, and I tried to laugh too, but it came out brittle.

Finally, I blurted, “Where were you last week? Are you okay?”

He stopped laughing so abruptly it made me feel bad. No one should ever stop his laughter. It was a crime.

“I had a family thing, but you don’t want to hear about my messed-up family.”

“I do want to hear about your family.” And I found it was the truth, even if it meant navigating the land mines of my past. “Why would you think I wouldn’t?”

He waited a beat before answering—long enough for me to see guardedness in his eyes for the first time. “Because you don’t talk about yours.”

Shit. Evidently he had noticed that I didn’t respond. I took a step back, putting more distance between Paulie and me, and locked down my expression out of habit.

He sighed. “Come on, honey. Class is about to start.” He grinned up at me, trying to lighten the mood. “I’ll tell you all about the McPherson clan if you buy me a drink after class. If ever there were a group of people that could push me to day drinking, it would be my family.”

The class dragged on even more than usual, and by the time the TA turned the lights back on, I was half-asleep and irritated.

While Paulie gathered up his notes and textbook, I asked if he wanted to go to happy hour at Ropers, a country college dive about a block away from the Yard. They had the best happy-hour deals in Elkville.

You go to Ropers?” he asked.

And as I championed the merits of the Ropers’ happy-hour margarita, exasperation wafted off of Paulie like heat waves.

“No, Joel. I should have said, ‘You feel comfortable going into that hick hellhole?’ I mean, Elkville might be this liberal college town in the Middle of Nowhere, Oklahoma, but it’s still the Middle of Nowhere, Oklahoma. And Ropers is the epitome of redneck.”

Oh. Travis and I go sometimes, and no one has ever bothered us.”

Paulie raked his eyes over me, and then fiddled with the forest-green scarf wrapped around his neck. And it hit me like an uppercut. Both Travis and I could pass as straight if we wanted, but Paulie—wearing skinny jeans, a pale-yellow blazer with a feminine cut and floral lining, and a sheer scarf that was not for the purpose of keeping him warm—couldn’t.

His clothes weren’t the only reason he might have trouble passing. He had a deep voice but spoke in lilting tones and used endearments like sweetheart and honey all the time. Plus, he moved in a soft manner, not timid exactly, but with grace. Even the way he was standing, with his hip cocked and his long neck stretched in a seductive, open curve, broadcast that Paulie was sassy and different.

I wanted that cheap margarita, though.

“Could you maybe tone it down a tad?”

I wanted to choke the words back down the moment they left my mouth. This was why I didn’t have friends. I was such an asshole.

He lifted his gaze slowly from his scarf, and disbelief washed over his face, vicious and ugly.

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t ask me to do that, Joel,” he said softly, his voice flat. All the musicality with which he normally spoke had vanished, and it scared me. “I have tried, for my entire life, to, as you say, ‘tone it down.’ If I couldn’t do it for my parents, I certainly won’t do it for you. Now are you going to buy me a fucking drink or not?”

I was disgusted with myself. The frightening reality that I was about to screw up this whole thing—this friendship—practically knocked the breath out of me.

“I’m sorry,” I said, because, God, I was an idiot.

I wanted to hug him but was too self-conscious. I had always been able to hide being gay, and for so long, hiding had been necessary. Diego had depended on our secrecy because it kept him safe. I had been safe to him because I could pass. Would he have wanted me if I were swishy? A resounding no practically cracked in my vision like a comic-book bubble.

Paulie sighed loudly, snapping me out of the past. “At least let me take off this damn scarf.”

“No!” I said, sick that I’d made him question himself in the first place. “I like the scarf.”

He’d already begun to unwrap it from his neck, and I stilled his hands. I rearranged the gauzy fabric, but couldn’t get it to lie as artfully around his neck as it had been. When I was done, the tails of the scarf hung loosely against his chest and his throat and collarbones were exposed.

Paulie’s dark five-o’clock shadow contrasted sharply with the pale skin of his neck, and I was struck with the sudden urge to run my thumb along the line of stubble. I moved my gaze away from Paulie’s throat and dropped my hands before I did something stupid.

“Keep the scarf,” I said. “If you want. It looks good on you.”

He was breathing a little hard, probably from anger, but he nodded and shot me a small smile.

“Let’s go, cowboy,” I said. “It’ll be like going to the zoo.”

Peanut shells littered the floor and antique oil and gas signs lined the walls of Ropers. Old horse tack hung from the ceiling and pool tables crowded what would have been a dance floor in the other college bars. Cheap drinks drew the masses, though the redneck regulars made their presence known through the music.

I ordered us a super cheap pitcher of strawberry margaritas, and we found a booth away from the crowd. After several minutes, Paulie began to relax. I asked him what happened with his family, and he looked into his drink.

“Have you ever heard of the Quiverfull Movement?”

“Like a quiver of arrows?”

“Yes, arrows for God,” he said bitterly. “Did you grow up religious?”

“No. Not at all,” I answered warily.

Besides the stray wedding and Diego’s funeral, I’d only been to church once. I’d been fifteen, and it had been almost a year before Diego and I had crossed the line from friends to fucking. My parents had been fighting worse than normal, so I’d spent the night with Diego and gone with his family to church the next morning. Diego’s parents had fed me, given me a bed, and ensured I did not have to listen to my screaming parents or my mother’s inevitable crying. But I’d known they would never accept me if they knew how much I wanted their son.

And I’d been right.

“Long story short,” Paulie explained. “Quiverfull is an evangelical movement where big, strong Christian fathers don’t believe in wrapping their tools, and faithful mothers don’t take birth control. So everyone has a shit-ton of kids. I’m the second oldest of eleven.”

“God!” I gasped. “Wasn’t that expensive?”

Paulie laughed low in his throat. “Yeah, it was. My dad’s an engineer. My mom homeschooled us, which is common in Quiverfull. I loved having a big family when I was little. There were always babies to play with, and every day seemed like a Christmas card. Like, we had homemade bread all the time. But I didn’t realize how much we struggled financially until I got older. God always provides—that’s what they say.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“I’m gay. That’s the first major problem, but maybe not the biggest.” Paulie paused for a second, like he was shoring up his reserves before letting the floodgates open. “I have eight sisters, and then the youngest are twin boys. So it was a very female-centric house for a very long time, and my sisters are so warped. They were all taught that they should follow the path of their husbands, and that a strong man will lead them from temptation. And that it is their duty to have as many kids as they can pop out, and to do otherwise is against God’s will. As far as the church and my parents are concerned, it’s their preordained role to be the helpmeet. It’s sick.

“Daria, who is a year younger than me, ran away when she was seventeen because she wanted to go to college but my parents didn’t think she needed it. Their neighbor’s son was courting her, and that was going to be her life: the baby maker. Now my parents won’t speak to her, and she’s in therapy to deal with the constant guilt. That’s the thing about growing up that way. You’re, like, indoctrinated to feel guilty over every action or thought. It turns my stomach to think about how my other siblings deal with sex and desire and intimacy. They’re probably all perfect robots. Daria and I got out, but the guilt is still an ugly thing. It’s not easy to kick.”

“You don’t see your family at all?” I didn’t want to see my mother very often, but I liked knowing I could.

“No, not besides Daria. My aunt took me in when I was fourteen, and Daria when she ran away four years later. See, I always knew it was total bullshit. I was one of those little boys who wanted to wear dresses and play with my sisters’ Easy-Bake Oven. I knew I was different, but never tried very hard to change. Like, God made me the way I am, and my parents were obviously wrong. Why couldn’t I be more into dolls than trucks, you know? When I hit puberty, there was no going back. My parents hated everything about me, and I stopped trying. I was grounded all the time because of the way I wore my clothes, or spoke, or because they had found my stashes of teen magazines.

“When I was thirteen, I called my dad’s sister, Ruth. I’d never met her. She was the only one of my dad’s siblings to leave the fold, and I had to use the computer at the library to find her number. I think I said to her, ‘I’m so gay it’s not even funny.’ And she told me that eventually I might want to leave, and she would take me. That’s exactly what happened.”

“I can’t believe your parents didn’t put you in one of those reparative therapy camps, that they just let you go live with your aunt.”

That had always been Diego’s fear, and it could have been legitimate. We never found out. Diego never had to experience the heartbreak of his parents’ rejection and contempt. Though, in the end, they had no issue turning it on me.

“I expected that too, and was sure my family was five seconds from a pray-the-gay-away intervention. So I never outwardly admitted it to them. In fact, the first time I said it out loud was to my aunt that day on the phone, and the second time was when I told my parents and asked to move out. They felt like I was old enough to choose to leave. They drove me to my aunt Ruth’s house and helped us with all of the legal stuff. Maybe they just saw me as a lost cause, which was pretty much the truth. Whatever they thought, they just shut down, and I became nothing to them.”

Paulie stalled out and downed his margarita. The pink drink stained his mouth a little at the edges like Kool-Aid.

I had no idea what to say. It wasn’t only that he’d been rejected by his parents. It was that they’d delivered him to his aunt wrapped up with a bow and never spoken to him again.

He spilled his story, his past, so easily, but I didn’t tell anyone, not even my closest friends, where I was from or about my past. I closed myself up tight and not only protected my emotions but also hid away those memories that were tainted and ugly.

Paulie had no idea how courageous I thought he was in that moment. How much I envied his strength. How much I liked him.

“In the past, I’ve enjoyed telling that story,” Paulie said, watching me closely. “I felt like it made me interesting or something. But I didn’t really want to tell you. I didn’t want you to think I’m a freak. And you never talk about your family, so I figure they’re either fucked up like mine or abnormally normal.”

I hesitated, because I hated repaying Paulie with a lie after he’d been so forthcoming, but I couldn’t risk telling the truth. I didn’t want to open myself up, no matter how much I appreciated Paulie’s honesty.

“They’re not fucked up like yours. I think I’d be hard-pressed to find one that is. I’m an only child. My dad won’t speak to me because I’m gay. So it’s just me and my mom.” I spewed the words like a line in a play, well-rehearsed and smooth.

I couldn’t tell Paulie about the day Dad had backhanded me and called me a faggot. I didn’t mention that my rather explosive outing ripped apart my parents’ already tenuous marriage, and ultimately, my relationship with my mom had suffered almost as much as the one with my dad.

Paulie nodded in understanding, even though he couldn’t possibly understand at all.

“But I was older when all that happened, you know?” I said. “A senior in high school. You were what? An eighth-grader? A freshman? Fourteen is really young to lose your family.” Mine had imploded at eighteen, and most days I didn’t care. Most days I tried not to care about anything.

Paulie’s eyes flashed with pain. “I don’t think I realized what I was doing. I don’t regret it. Not now. But it’s impossible for a sheltered fourteen-year-old to fully understand the consequences of that type of action. I wasn’t thinking about not seeing my siblings or parents again. I just thought about myself and wanting to be happy.”

I was fully aware of the teenager’s capacity to not comprehend consequences.

I finished my drink and looked around. The sky had darkened, and the happy-hour patrons were dwindling. A group of farm boys fired up a redneck song on the jukebox, and everyone cheered. That was probably our cue to exit stage left. “So you still haven’t told me why you were gone last week.”

“Daria’s sick,” Paulie explained. “She was always sensitive, and she always took everything so hard. I don’t think she’s had a day since she ran away where she wasn’t completely overwhelmed. She’s depressed, and she sleeps around a lot. It’s like she’s fetishized the guilt or something, so she feels awful about screwing around with random guys but can’t stop, which is actually pretty normal for people who leave Quiverfull. Anyway, some days she does great, and some days she can’t get out of bed.”

“Did something happen last week? Is she gonna be okay?”

“Well, two weeks ago, she cheated on her boyfriend, and he broke up with her. She’s been struggling since then. I went home to help her move out of her dorm room at Emporia State University and back in with our aunt because Daria’s therapist thinks a more controlled environment will help her. Aunt Ruth lives in Emporia too, so Daria will be able to keep going to school. And I do think she’ll be okay. She’s really strong.”

I reached across the sticky linoleum table and grabbed his hand before I considered how it would look. I didn’t care. His eyes were really bright, and, oh God, it hurt. I would have done anything in the world at that moment to see his gap-toothed smile. I had nothing to offer, though. I knew what it meant to lose someone, but had no practice in offering reassurance.

“Let me buy you dinner, Paulie. Anything you want.” I had so little else to give.

He did smile then, and I was shocked by how that smile could turn me inside out when no one, no one since Diego, had been able to come close. I didn’t like it at all.

“You’re turning out to be a very good date, sweetheart. You’ve protected me from all of the big, scary rednecks, and now you’re buying me sushi.”

from Library Journal


This debut is an A+ example of young friends-to-lovers romance as well as new adult genre-theming. McLellan crafts a beautiful, angst-filled, and heart-wrenching debut that readers will not be able to put down.