Jensen listens to Jared’s message, the fifth one in the past thirty minutes, and resists the urge to pick up. Again. Jensen’s torn between his sadness at losing Jared and his need to explain, as if explaining why he did what he did would make it any better.
“You did the right thing, honey,” his mom assures him. “You would’ve had to do it soon anyway, and this way you’re still giving yourself time to get ready for the big move.”
Jensen bites his bottom lip. “I guess.”
“A clean break is the best kind,” Donna says. “Give the boy time to adjust before you leave town. It’s a kinder way to break it off than waiting till the last minute.”
Jensen takes a deep breath. “I guess.”
“Besides, I need your help,” Donna goes on. “While this IRS audit is happening, I need your help running the home while I’m holed up in my office going over tax records.”
“Yeah, about that.” Jensen picks a string on the seam of his jeans. “What’s going on, Mom? When those guys were here last week, they seemed so grim. They were downright rude to you.”
“Nothing you need to worry about,” Donna assures him. “Come on. You can help me get supper on. Then we’ll head down to the home for movie night.”
Jensen bites his lip again. Jared had picked the movie for tonight. He’d been all set to help host the event, eager to help. Jensen feels like a cad for breaking up with him just before he’d had a chance to show Jensen what a big-hearted guy he is.
Jensen knows what a big-hearted guy Jared is. He doesn’t need a good deed to prove it to him. But Jared had been so excited to show him how great he could be with the old folks.
When his mom brought up the idea of breaking up with Jared last week, right after the IRS investigators left, Jensen had been shocked. It hadn’t occurred to him to break things off before the last possible moment. He’d even been thinking about the possibility of asking Jared if they could get together at Christmas.
“He’s young, Jensen,” Donna had said. “He’ll bounce back. Don’t leave him dangling, waiting for you to come home during the holidays. Let him move on. It’s only fair. Besides, I need you. This thing with the government is going to tie me up over the next month, and I need your help while I get it sorted out. You owe me, Jensen.”
And of course, Jensen couldn’t say no to that. He does owe her, big time. All the private tutoring and schooling, four years of college tuition, all paid in cash so Jensen wouldn’t be saddled with debt after graduation. The fact that everything his mother had done for him had resulted in a full-ride scholarship to UCLA only made Jensen’s debt to his mom more pronounced. Of course he would help her in her time of need.
If only he didn’t feel so wrong about dumping Jared.
“Give him this pen,” Donna had said, handing Jensen one of her finest ballpoints. “Something to remember you by.”
When he gets home that night, there are ten more voice mails from Jared. Donna shakes her head as he sits down to listen to them.
“Better to just erase them without listening to them,” she says, shaking her head. “You’ll just make yourself miserable.”
Jensen listens to them with the sound low after she goes to bed. He gets choked up listening to Jared reciting all the reasons they should be together, all the ways that being apart isn’t good for them.
“I’m not gonna stop calling, Jensen, so you better just face that,” his voice says. “You can turn off the machine, but I’ll find a way to let you know how wrong you are. I’m not gonna stop. Not ever.”
The next day, Jensen goes to work at the home, occupies himself with cooking and cleaning and helping the old folks in the recreation room. When he finally gets home, he’s tired and worn out. The answering machine is full of messages again, all from Jared.
That night, it rains again, which suits Jensen’s mood. He wakes up in the middle of the night because he hears music and realizes it’s one of the songs he and Jared love. When he gets up to investigate, he sees Jared in the park across the street, holding his boom box over his head as music pours from its speakers.
The next day, Jensen goes into the city to have lunch with his dad.
“The IRS called me,” Allan Ackles tells his son. “They want to interview me about your mom.”
“Try to say nice things about Mom, okay?” Jensen pleads. “She’s really reeling under this thing. It’s so unfair! Why do they go after people this way? After everything she’s done for Montview, after all those years of hard work, they think she’s cheating on her taxes? Really?”
“It might be a little more than that, son,” Allan says. “They seem to think she’s been skimming off the top. Stealing.”
“That’s impossible,” Jensen says. “I would know! Besides, look at how we live. It’s not like we’re the Rockefellers, for god’s sake.”
“Well, luckily it won’t affect your scholarship,” Allan says. “The IRS can’t take that away, since it doesn’t belong to her. You’re free to go on with your life, whatever happens.”
“What do you mean, whatever happens?” Jensen stares. “What could possibly happen?”
“If your mother is found guilty of stealing, she’ll go to prison, Jensen,” Allan says gently. “Surely, you understand that.”
“She’s not stealing!” Jensen insists. “That’s just impossible! Stealing from who? The residents? That’s just crazy!”
Allan shakes his head. “All I know is what those agents told me,” he says. “Obviously they didn’t tell me what could happen to her, but they didn’t have to. Stealing’s a crime, white collar or not.”
Jensen heads straight to the IRS office after lunch, determined to speak with the agents in charge of his mother’s case.
“Your mother is guilty, Jensen,” the man who calls himself Agent Harris says. “We will prosecute, and she will go to prison. We have agents watching her right now, in case she tries to flee the country.”
“This is insane,” Jensen insists. “There’s no way she did anything wrong. I would know!”
“Think about it,” Agent Harris says. “She pays cash for everything, right? Your tuition, your cars. Who could afford that on her salary?”
“She’s just a really good money manager,” Jensen insists.
“Does she keep locked boxes full of cash lying around the house?” Agent Harris asks.
But Jensen’s noticed one on the mantle, another one in the kitchen. Jensen’s seen his mother open one and take out cash for groceries. He knows there’s another one in the upstairs hallway.
When he gets home, he finds a letter-opener, pries open the box on the living-room mantle. It’s full of one-hundred dollar bills. The set of luggage his mother bought for him when he won the UCLA scholarship must have cost at least a thousand dollars. The used convertible she gave him as a graduation present must be worth ten thousand.
He waits for her to come home, confronts her with the box of cash.
“Is it true?” he demands as she looks blankly from the box to Jensen’s face. “Did you do what those agents said? Did you steal from Montview residents?”
Donna’s face hardens. “I take care of them when nobody else does,” she says. “I’m there for them at the ends of their lives when their own families have deserted them.”
Jensen stares at her. He can’t believe what he’s hearing.
“How could you do that, Mom? Those people trusted you!”
Donna crosses her arms in a defensive gesture, regarding him coolly. “How do you think I paid for all those private tutors in high school, huh? Test preparation courses, music lessons, all the equipment and fees for all the sports you played. You think I could have managed that on a nursing-home manager’s salary? But it was worth it, Jensen. It was worth it to see you become the man you were meant to be!”
Jensen stares, flabbergasted. “Stealing and lying? I don’t want to be somebody who had to do that to get where I am. Don’t you get that, Mom? I would never have let you pay for all those things if I knew where the money was coming from!”
“Oh come on, Jensen,” she scoffs. “You had to know.”
“No, Mom, I didn’t. I just assumed you had savings. One time you told me you got a Christmas bonus, and I believed you. I thought you were getting bonuses and raises to pay for those things. I never would have let you do that if I’d known. Never!”
“Oh yeah? And just how would you have made it, then? Huh? You think you could’ve gotten into Middleton on your good looks alone?” She scoffs. “You were a smart kid, Jensen, but not that smart. Not that exceptional. Face it. You needed the tutoring. You needed the test prep, and the extra-curriculars. You never would’ve made it without them.”
Jensen’s floored by her tone, by the bitterness and scorn. He’s never heard his mother sound like that. But he’s not backing down. He knows he’s right.
“I could’ve worked, mom,” he insists. “I could’ve worked my way through high school and college, the way most kids do.”
“Oh, waste your time at some dead-end job flipping burgers twenty hours a week when you should have been studying,” she sneers. “Like that would’ve helped you get ahead.”
“It’s honest work!” Jensen’s horrified. Jared worked his way through high school and college. Jared’s flipped burgers. It never occurred to Jensen to turn up his nose at that.
Of course, Jared’s naturally smart. He was a straight-A student without even needing all those hours to study.
“I did it all for you, Jensen,” she insists. “All of it. That makes you complicit. That means you owe me! Do you have any idea what I sacrificed to give all that to you? I could’ve had a life, a boyfriend, a better job that paid real money so I could’ve lived in a nicer house, driven nicer cars. Instead all I get is your ingratitude.”
“What you did was wrong, Mom,” Jensen says. “If I’d known, I would’ve stopped you.”
“How do you think that little boyfriend of yours is gonna feel when he finds out your whole life is fake?” Donna says bitterly. “You think he’ll want you after he finds out?”
“Yeah, I do, actually,” Jensen says, surprising himself. “Jared’s a good man. He lost his parents but he’s put his life back together and worked hard. He lost so much, but he’s still getting in there and making a life for himself. He’s brave, Mom, braver than anyone I know! And I love him! I love him.”
“Oh yeah?” Donna sneers. “What do you know about love, Jensen, huh? You’ve had everything handed to you. Never had to work, never had to sacrifice. How can you know what love is?”
“Because he loves me.” Jensen gasps in shock. “Oh god, I fucked up.”
He turns away, heading to the door.
“Where are you going?”
“To apologize to Jared,” Jensen snaps. “I just hope he’ll forgive me.”
He’s out the door, slamming it behind him as his mother screams recriminations and threats at his retreating back. He leaves the convertible in the driveway and takes off running. The car isn’t really his, anyway.
It’s early evening — Jared’s working at the gym. When Jensen gets there, the girl at the front desk tells him that Jared’s in class so Jensen waits, clenching his fists in frustration, pacing back and forth in the small lobby. He can hear Jared’s voice, shouting out moves over pounding, blaring music. Through the open doorway into the classroom, Jensen can see a line of boys and girls moving to the music — the back row of students. They seem happy, enthusiastic. Jared’s a good teacher.
Of course he is. Jared’s good at whatever he puts his mind to.
The music stops and the kids pour out into the lobby with their parents, chattering excitedly. Jensen stands aside to let them pass, waits till they’re all gone before heading into the classroom.
Jared’s at the front of the room, putting away his equipment. He glances up into the wall of mirrors when Jensen enters, and their eyes meet. Jensen’s heart pounds. His hands sweat. He’s either about to cry or throw up, he’s not sure which.
Jared’s more beautiful than he remembers. Sweaty, scruffy, flushed after his workout, gorgeous beyond anything Jensen’s ever seen.
And now Jensen’s broken his heart. The heart of the best man he’s ever likely to know. How could he be such an idiot?
“Jensen? What’s wrong?”
Jared stands up, turns around, and the concerned, confused frown on his face is so much more than Jensen deserves.
“I’m an asshole, that’s what’s wrong,” he blurts out. “If you hate me forever, I’ll totally understand.”
“Hate you? I can’t hate you, Jen, you know that.”
“My mom’s a thief, Jared,” Jensen goes on, grateful Jared hasn’t punched him yet. “She stole from Montview. She’s been doing it for years, and now she’s going to jail. I just didn’t know how to tell you.”
Jared’s eyes widen almost comically. “Oh my god,” he breathes. He crosses the room, reaching for Jensen. “Oh my god, Jensen, I’m so sorry! That’s awful!”
“She lied to me!” Jensen grits his teeth. “How could she do that?”
Jensen starts to fall, or maybe crumble, and Jared catches him, pulls Jensen against his big, sweaty body.
“And when I called her on it, she went all psycho on me, accused me of being in on it, knowingly taking gifts and expensive tutoring sessions and test prep courses. Jared, my mom is a sociopathic criminal.”
“Shhhh, okay, it’s okay,” Jared soothes, rubbing circles on Jensen’s back as he holds him. Jensen feels moisture on his cheeks, realizes he’s crying.
“She told me to break up with you because she needed me more. What kind of a person does that?” Jensen buries his face in Jared’s shoulder and clings. “I’m so sorry, Jared. Can you ever forgive me?”
“Jensen, it’s okay, I forgive you. I knew there had to be something you weren’t telling me, I just knew it. I knew you didn’t really want to break up with me. I could tell.”
Jensen lets himself be held, lets Jared comfort him as he reels from the shock of his mother’s behavior, of his own willingness to believe whatever she told him.
How could Jared love a man who let himself be deceived like that?
“You’re a better man than I,” Jensen mumbles into Jared’s shoulder. His shirt is soaked with sweat and Jensen’s tears, but he smells and feels like home. “All my life, all I did was take. All I did was let people give me things.”
Jared pulls him back, cups Jensen’s face in his hands, and gazes intently into his eyes.
“You are a good person, Jensen,” Jared insists. “I knew that about you before I ever met you. You’ll survive this, I know you will.”
Jared’s thumbs sweep across Jensen’s cheeks, wiping the tears away. Jensen closes his eyes, nods.
“I can’t go home,” he says. “I can’t go back there, ever.”
“You can come home with me,” Jared says instantly. “We’ve got plenty of room and you’d be totally welcome.”
Jensen opens his eyes, gazes at Jared with all the gratitude he can muster. “You’ll take me back? Even after I hurt you? Even after all the pain you’ve been through?”
A little frown flickers across Jared’s face, then fades. He smiles, dimples showing.
“I love you,” he says. “I always knew you’d come back to me.”
With Jared’s help, Jensen returns to his house to pack. The IRS allows him to take his old, beat-up suitcase and a box of personal items. Everything else will be confiscated and sold.
Jared’s brother and sister welcome Jensen into their home, just as Jared had promised they would. The Padaleckis are a brash, rambunctious family who look after each other with good humor and sympathy. They work hard, and Jensen finds himself alone a lot since they all have jobs and Jensen doesn’t dare go back to Montview. Even Megan works during the summer at a local independent sandwich shop.
“Starbucks is our competition,” she tells Jensen with a wink. “Don’t tell Jared, but I make sandwiches for a lot of former Starbucks customers. They don’t like the whole corporate vibe of that place, and they’re good tippers.”
The final weeks of the summer fly by. In the evenings, Jared and Jensen take walks, discuss the future. Jared wants to take the year off, fly with Jensen to LA and audition.
“I just want to give acting a go, you know? Give it a year. If nothing happens, I can always come back to Middleton. Or maybe enroll at UCLA as a sophomore transfer student. My grades and test scores are good enough.”
Jensen slips his hand into Jared’s and squeezes. “I think that sounds like a good plan,” he admits. “I might do some of that myself.”
Jared blinks. “Really? But what about your medical degree?”
Jensen shrugs. “I think I might be able to get them to defer for a year,” he says. “Then, if nothing happens with acting or music, I can always fall back on medicine. I think it’s something I should try while I’m still young enough, you know?”
“Yeah,” Jared says, nodding. “Definitely.”
Jensen reads the look of amazement on Jared’s face and raises an eyebrow. “What?”
Jared huffs out a laugh. “You,” he says with a little shake of his head. “Doing something daring. Trying something risky.”
“Shut up!” Jensen protests, bumping Jared’s shoulder with his own. “I take risks!”
“Since when?” Jared stares. “You’ve always had everything so well planned out. Success at everything you do is kind of your brand, Jensen. Acting isn’t exactly a risk-free career goal. There’s no guaranteed success at it, even if you’re the best in your class.”
“Maybe I need to follow my heart for once,” Jensen says. “You taught me that. I learned to take risks from you.”
Jared gazes at him, taking the compliment without laughing for once. Jensen could get used to gazing into those soft hazel eyes. He wants to.
When Jared kisses him, Jensen thinks he could used to that, too. He wants to get used to a lot of things about Jared.
With a little luck and a lot of hard work, maybe he will.
Jared insists that Jensen visit his mom in prison before they leave for LA. Jensen holds back while Jared talks to her first, and by the time Jared calls him over to join them, Jensen’s mostly got his emotions under control.
“Jared wanted this, not me,” Jensen tells her as he sits down across the visitor’s table from her. She’s dressed in prison orange, not a good look on her. She looks worn, older, defeated. “I was ready to leave without saying goodbye.”
“Well, I’m glad Jared has better sense than you do,” Donna says with a little hint of her old bitterness.
“I’m going to try acting and music for a year,” Jensen tells her, puffing up his chest. “I’m gonna live for my passions for a while, see where it gets me.”
Donna nods. “Jared told me.”
“He’s a good man,” Jensen says softly. “I’m lucky to have him.”
“Luckier than you deserve,” Donna remarks, resentful.
Jensen’s chest clenches. He nods stiffly. “I know that,” he says.
He pulls out the ballpoint pen that Donna had given him to give Jared a month ago. It feels like years ago now. He holds it up so she can see what it is, so he can see that she remembers. Then he places it on the table between them.
“Something to remember me by,” he says. He gets up, turns to the door where Jared stands waiting for him, just out of earshot. “Goodbye, Mom.”
On the plane the next day, Jensen tries not to remember the first and only other time he’d flown. His hands clutch the armrests reflexively as he takes deep, slow breaths to calm himself. Beside him, Jared pulls out his walkman, slips in a tape of one of their favorite albums.
When he’d first seen the walkman, Jensen had teased Jared about it. Yet now, as Jared plugs in his headphones and runs the tape forward till their favorite song starts, Jensen smiles. Jared’s old-fashioned tastes are comforting. His love for 80s rock is endearing.
As Jared leans close so that Jensen can listen too when he pushes play, Jensen closes his eyes.
Love I get so lost, sometimes
Days pass and this emptiness fills my heart
When I want to run away
I drive off in my car
But whichever way I go
I come back to the place you are
All my instincts, they return
And the grand facade, so soon will burn
Without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the inside
In your eyes
The light the heat
In your eyes
I am complete
In your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
In your eyes
The resolution of all the fruitless searches
In your eyes
I see the light and the heat
In your eyes
Oh, I want to be that complete
I want to touch the light
The heat I see in your eyes