3. ROBBIE — LONELY BOY FAR FROM HOME
Two years earlier. Bemidji, Minnesota
The headlights of Robbie’s car slid across the face of the man standing in the one shadowy space of the Holiday Stationstore in time for Robbie to avoid hitting him.
Robbie cursed and yanked the wheel to the right. The whole damn gas station was lit up like Vegas, and this guy has to find the one dark corner to hide in? Robbie glanced over as he stomped past the guy. He wore a Huntsville Chargers sweat-shirt and a haunted expression.
The look in the guy’s eyes followed him into the store, plucking at his memories as he debated between the brats rolling around under the heat lamp or a pre-made sandwich. He settled on a brat and a Gatorade and tried to figure out why the guy felt familiar.
Outside, it felt like the temperature had dropped even further. The idiot was still standing there, and he was going to freeze to death. That gray hoodie he wore might have been fine in Huntsville, but it was no match for the weather on December 20th in Bemidji, Minnesota.
The guy stood with his elbows braced on the short brick wall separating the parking lot from the small pond on the other side. He swayed slightly. Robbie couldn’t tell if it was from the cold, exhaustion, or if it had something to do with the crumpled brown paper bag at his side.
Either way, he couldn’t in good conscience pass by without at least asking the guy if he was okay. Even if he was a Chargers’ fan. The fact that he also had a great ass and broad shoulders, had nothing at all to do why Robbie was walking over to him.
Robbie walked up behind the guy, deliberately making noise. Why was he doing this? The guy was probably going to tell him to fuck off. But those southerners tended to underestimate the cold, and besides, no one stood in the parking lot of a gas station at eleven o’clock at night unless they had nowhere else to be. “Hey, are you okay?” Robbie asked.
The guy turned his head and looked blankly at Robbie.
Robbie frowned. The guy looked vaguely familiar. He had wavy blond hair, blue eyes, and an athletic build. If he was in Bemidji with Huntsville, maybe Robbie had seen him at the game earlier.
“It’s too cold to be standing outside,” Robbie continued. God, he sounded like his mother. But the wind was cutting through his heavy parka; it had to be passing through that hoodie like it wasn’t even there.
The guy blinked. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“You have nowhere to go? You here with Huntsville?” It was obvious from his accent that the guy was from somewhere in the South.
He nodded. Apparently, he was a man of few words. He clutched a bottle-shaped paper bag, but he didn’t seem particularly drunk.
“Then don’t you have a hotel?”
“I don’t want to go back there.”
“Well, you can’t stand here all night, you’ll freeze to death, and they’ll have to unstick your body from the parking lot, and that’s not fair to do to somebody.” He smiled, to show he was making a joke.
The guy looked down at the ground, and then back up at Robbie. “Where are you going?” he asked, with the beginning of a grin.
Suddenly Robbie recognized him. “You’re Dyson, right? The D-man from the Chargers.”
“Shit,” the guy Robbie was ninety percent sure was Paul Dyson, muttered. The wind gusted across the open parking lot, and they both shivered. Paul’s teeth chattered.
Dyson turned to leave, and Robbie grabbed his arm. “You are Dyson, right? I’m not taking some rando back home.”
“Yeah,” he answered. “Paul. Or some guys call me Chip.”
Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. Chip was a stupid name. “Robbie,” He said. “Rhodes,” he clarified when Paul looked confused. “Beavers’ defense.”
Paul nodded. “Oh, yeah. Right. I remember you. You weren’t bad tonight.”
“No.” For the first time, there was a little life in Paul’s eyes. “I think if you changed it up, just a little, you’d be amazing.”
“So, come with me, and you can tell me all about how I suck. You can get warm. And then if you want to leave again, I’ll drive you somewhere, okay?”
Paul nodded. “Yeah. Okay.” He followed Robbie.
“This your car?” he asked as Robbie opened the door to his fifteen-year-old Subaru Outback.
“It better be, or someone is going to be mighty pissed off when they come out and find it gone.”
Paul got in and looked around the inside of the car as if were some strange machine he had never seen before. “Kind of girly, ain’t it?”
“It’s a car. There are no boy or girl cars.” Robbie backed out carefully. “It gets great gas mileage.”
Paul raised one eyebrow and turned the heater vent to blow directly on him.
Robbie broke his brat in half and handed one part to Paul. “Want it? It’s probably ice cold by now, though.”
Paul took it with a shrug. “Yeah. Thanks.” He chewed thoughtfully, staring out the window as Robbie drove the dark streets back to his apartment.
Robbie’s apartment was in the back of an old house. It was a little small and dark, and tended to be cold in the winter and hot in the summer, but it had a pond in the back that froze over every winter, and the owner kept it skating-ready. That made up for every defect the house might have.
“What about you missing curfew?” Robbie asked to his silent guest.
“LaRoux took care of bed check for me,” Paul said. “Guess, I have to sneak in before breakfast. I reckon I didn’t have much of a plan,” he confessed.
Robbie flicked the lights on as he walked past the hockey sticks leaning against the wall, through the narrow kitchen, and into the living room-slash-bedroom. Two doors off the living room lead to the bathroom and a small closet. His futon/bed was pushed against one wall. The only other furniture was a bean bag chair and cheap wooden coffee table.
Hockey equipment filled up every nook and cranny.
Paul stopped in the doorway of the living room. He’d shoved his hands deep into the front pocket of his sweatshirt he looked oddly shy.
“Come on in,” Robbie said. “I won’t bite.” Maybe Paul was rethinking his decision. “Unless you want me to take you back after all?”
“No. I want to stay,” Paul said quickly and took the final step into the room. He paced around the small room, checking out the two tall bookcases lined with knickknacks, CDs and the DVDs.
Paul ran his fingers along the rows of CDs. “You have a lot of audiobooks.” He pulled one with a plain white cover off the shelf. “Finance 101?”
“I learn better from audiobooks. My parents’ friends were nice enough to record some of my text books for me.” He tried to make it sound like no big deal, but it had been. It had taken them days of recording and editing.
Robbie had almost killed himself trying to get an A in that class. It was the least he could do. Too bad he’d only gotten a C+. As if the plus made a difference.
Paul put the CD back and continued his slow exploration of the small room. The next thing he pulled out was a collection of American Sign Language DVDs. “Can you speak sign language? Are you deaf?”
“No. Not deaf. Did I seem deaf while were talking?” He thought for a second. “Can you even play hockey if you’re deaf?”
Paul shrugged. “I don’t know. So why sign language then?”
Robbie had the feeling that if he moved too quickly, Paul would flee like a wild animal. He wasn’t sure why, but he wanted the guy to stay for a while. Sure, he was good-looking; tall and with those All-American looks, blond hair and blue eyes. But it was more than that.
Robbie couldn’t help but think of the sadness he remembered seeing in Paul’s eyes during the game.
“I have a couple of learning disabilities,” Robbie answered. “They make it hard for me to read and write. And talk sometimes. Some therapist suggested ASL as a way to maybe retrain my brain.”
“Does it help?”
Robbie shrugged. “Yeah. Sometimes I can think better in it. Doesn’t help me talk to most people.”
“I think it would be mighty interesting.” Paul pulled a DVD off the shelf, tilting it forward with one finger.
Even from across the room, Robbie could tell it was one of the seasons of Queer as Folk.
Paul let the DVD tip back into line, then turned back to the room.
Robbie followed his eyes to the rainbow flag stuck into the coffee mug that served as a pencil holder.
“I heard…well some guys were saying that you’re gay. Some guys from my team.” Paul tried to sound casual.
“Yeah?” If Paul wanted to know something, Robbie was going to make him work for it.
Paul looked him.
Robbie stared back, not giving anything.
The longer he stared, the better-looking Paul got. With the first glimpse of his face, you got an overall impression of general attractiveness. But the more you looked, the more you noticed his perfect cheekbones, the cleft in his chin, and what an unusual shade of blue his eyes were. And how pretty his mouth was. The mouth that was moving as Paul said something to Robbie.
“What?” Robbie asked, snapping out of his lust-induced haze. Maybe he was too tired to be awake.
“I said, does your team know you’re gay?”
Robbie shrugged. “I think so. Some of them. I’m not sure about the new kids. I don’t hide it, but it’s not like I say ‘Hi, welcome to the team. I’m Robbie, I play defense, and I’m gay. Though maybe I’d get more dates that way.”
Paul didn’t laugh at his feeble attempt at a joke. “And they don’t care?”
“If they do, no one’s said anything to me about it.”
“And your parents? Do they know?”
Robbie sat on the end of his futon bed. “Yeah, of course.”
“Did they freak out?”
“Not even a little. I actually think they were glad. They think college sports are a waste of time and money. My dad’s a writer, and my mom is a college professor. Gay they get. Athlete, not so much.”
“Really?” Paul’s eyebrows rose to his hairline.
“Really. But hockey is the only reason I got into college in the first place. They were thrilled when I got a scholarship to BSU, though I think they thought I’d stay in Ohio.”
“Well, the Buckeyes at Ohio State are a Big Ten team.”
“I know. But I kind of wanted to get a little further away from them. Know what I mean?”
Paul made a non-committal sound. “You’re really lucky,” he said. “You know your parents will always love you.”
“Yeah. They love me.” He lay back on the futon. “They just aren’t very impressed by me.”
“Maybe they know how much you suck,” Paul said with a smile to show he was joking.
Robbie shook his head. “No. It’s worse. Hockey is the only thing I’m good at, and they could care less.”
Paul sat down next to him, not saying anything.
Robbie turned to him, and the guy flinched, his eyes dropping to Robbie’s mouth. Robbie could feel the waves of nervous energy coming from him.
Paul wanted Robbie, whether he knew it or not.
Oh boy, Robbie thought. One of those. He sighed internally. Testing his theory, Robbie leaned forward. Paul swayed towards him like he was magnetic.
Tempting. But probably a terrible idea.
Robbie stood up. “I want some hot chocolate. Want some?”
Robbie could feel Paul’s gaze on him the whole way into the kitchen.