Sequel to Summer's Dawn
Blurb: Jesse longs for the bell signaling the end of the school year. For Jesse, the summer vacation means leaving the bullies behind, and making the long journey to stay with his aunts and meet up with his best friends, Suzie and Kevin. This year is no different, until Jesse meets Neal, who flirts and laughs as he serves Jesse ice-cream. Jesse is flattered until one of his friends turns on him and suddenly his summer vacation doesn’t seem like the escape it’s always been. Can Neal’s gentle attention help Jesse feel better again?
Excerpt: Most kids longed for the bell that signaled the end of the school year and the start of the long summer vacation. At sixteen years old, Jesse Hartnell was no exception. For him the bell meant one thing; the end of nine months of jocks sticking their feet out to trip him up and laughing with their girlfriends at the faggot sprawled on the floor. The start of the summer vacation meant freedom of a kind Jesse only had for a few precious months of the year and he wasn’t going to waste a single moment.
Unlike most of the kids at his school Jesse didn’t go to summer camp. His mom didn’t approve of any camps except those run by her church, but she and Jesse’s dad still had to work. She sent Jesse to stay with her sister-in-law in Chester every summer. Mrs. Hartnell knew Vi was a godly woman and would do right by Jesse. When Jesse got old enough to travel by himself she packed him onto the Greyhound bus with a lunchbox and instructions not to annoy anyone. Mrs. Hartnell was proud of her son. Jesse never complained. He knew better.
Jesse sat on the bus for the fourteen hours it took to get to his auntie Vi’s, staring out of the window at the darkness as the bus slowly ate up the miles toward his freedom. He’d been going to Auntie Vi’s house for eleven years. When he was little it never occurred to him she was a good woman to just accept her brother’s off-spring dumped on her for three months. Auntie Vi didn’t have kids. She’d never gotten married, and shared what had been her parents’ house with a roommate, Beth-Mae Larimer. Auntie Beth was a vibrant woman with a loud laugh and a penchant for colorful clothing. Jesse loved her. His mom felt Vi should find someone more demure but Auntie Vi told her to hush. She was the only one who hushed his mother—certainly not her husband or son.
Only once had Jesse’s dad ever defied his wife, and that was after twelve-year-old Jesse had been beaten black and blue by two of the boys from the church. Then his mom had insisted Jesse spend the summer at church camp ‘to fix what the Devil had wrought’ but John Hartnell had quietly and firmly told his wife that Jesse was going to his sister’s and that was final. Nothing more was said; not to his wife and not to Jesse. That summer had been different. Instead of going to find his friends Jesse had spent it hiding in his room at Auntie Vi’s. He was broken, in body and soul, and he spent the summer recovering in Vi and Beth’s gentle care.
Jesse had known for years he was different from the other kids. At first he hadn’t known why they treated him differently. He played the same games and loved the same toys. Yet all the kids knew that Jesse wasn’t one of them and alienated him accordingly. Over the years Jesse had cried too many tears wondering why God had made him defective. Now he knew what it was. In a way it brought him peace to know why but it still didn’t stop the shit being kicked out of him. Jesse pressed against a sore spot on his ribs where Brad had kicked him five days ago. He never told anyone now about the beatings. What was the point?
It didn’t matter now. He was free from that hellhole for three months and on his way to the one place he felt safe. Sure enough, as soon as Jesse climbed off the bus his Auntie Vi was there, arms outstretched to hug him, and then he was passed to Auntie Beth, who hugged him so hard he was buried in her massive bust. When she finally let him up for air they both stared at him, eyes wide.
“What?” Jesse asked self-consciously.
“You’re so tall now!” Auntie Vi exclaimed.
Auntie Beth nodded, her dangling earrings jangling furiously. “You’re a man now, Jesse Hartnell. A real man.”
Jesse blushed. Since he’d last seen them he’d grown – and grown, and grown. His mom swore blind she’d never keep up. Other things had changed too, like the straggly mustache he had to shave every few days and the hairs on his chest. He was proud of those, and yeah, every morning he counted them just to see if more hairs had developed overnight.
His aunts laughed and they hugged him again.
“We missed you, Jesse,” Auntie Vi said. “Suzie’s called around every day and Kevin keeps riding up and down the sidewalk. The boy’s gonna wear a groove in the asphalt if he keeps it up.”
“They want to see me?”
“Course they want to see you, Jesse. They missed you, baby.”
Jesse blinked away tears as Auntie Vi cupped his cheek. “I missed them too, and you, Auntie.”
She wiped his eyes and hers, and then hooked her arm through his. Auntie Beth hoisted up his backpack and they walked to the parking lot, Beth and Vi babbling excitedly about the wisteria growing in their back yard. Jesse half-listened, content just to be in their company after months of misery.
Auntie Beth turned into the driveway of their small house so sharply the car’s tires squealed loudly. Red geraniums grew in pots by the front door. They were the only flowers Jesse knew the name of having spent years potting them up for his aunts. It looked like this year his aunts had gotten a head start.
Nothing had changed inside their house and Jesse took a deep breath as he smelled the dried roses and lavender that permeated every room. Then he heard the click-clack of claws on the wooden floor boards and bent down to accept the enthusiastic yips and licks of their two elderly, black cocker spaniels, Alfie and Bert.
“Welcome back, kid.” Auntie Beth led him to the large bedroom that was always his when he stayed. Technically this was her bedroom but over the years it had become Jesse’s.
And that was the other secret Jesse had kept from his mom for a long time. Auntie Beth-Mae wasn’t Auntie-Vi’s roommate. They’d been together since college, over twenty years. The first year Jesse had realized his aunties slept together in the same bed and not just because he was visiting, was the year Jesse put a name to himself.
Homosexual. Gay. Queer.
It was a revelation.
It was also the year the kids at school put another name to him.
That was the year Auntie Vi took him for a long walk along the beach, the dogs meandering at their heels as she explained what being gay meant. She talked about pretending she liked the boys at school and hiding her crush on her best friend. Jesse could relate. She had an oddly tender smile as she talked about going to college and meeting Beth-Mae for the first time. Finally realizing why she was different from the other students at school. Only they were at a Christian college and had to keep their relationship secret. Despite her parents’ disapproval, Vi broke off her relationship with a boy back home and when she had finished college Vi moved away and into a little house with Beth-Mae. They moved back to look after Vi’s parents when they got older.
At the end of her speech Jesse confessed in a hushed tone that he thought he might be gay too. She gathered him into her arms with a short laugh. “I know, baby, I know.”
Jesse pulled back, wide-eyed and scared. “You know?”
Vi hugged him tight. “I suspected.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Why would I mind, baby?” She stroked his hair and they carried on walking.
The tight knot of shame that had been inside Jesse’s chest ever since he’d put that name to himself eased just a little.