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First in Line
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Ethaniel’s first few days at college are challenging and are complicated by a sudden attraction to Nesto. Will he find the courage to be his true self?
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I blame my mom’s suitcase. I knew it was a terrible idea to use luggage older than I was, but the dingy navy case with a weird mauve stripe and ominously bulging zipper was the biggest we had in the house, and my folks sure as heck weren’t springing for something new for me to take to Cathia University. It teetered precariously on three good wheels as I dragged it behind me, the cracked handle cutting into my palm as I navigated the steps to Grubbs Hall.
I’d picked up my keycard moments earlier in front of the dorm. The wait at the “R-Z” portion of the keycard line was nothing compared to what I was likely in for in the dorm’s lobby. The crowd around the elevators was big and loud—couldn’t squeeze a strand of hay between all the freshmen, their parents, grandparents, and assorted siblings. The Cathia admissions folks had sent out a letter three weeks earlier with a schedule of staggered move-in times, but judging by the overflowing lobby, nobody had read the letter.
Everyone else was in groups—dads lugging huge footlockers and mini-fridges, moms carrying armfuls of bedding, younger siblings wheeling sleek black suitcases that made me want to shove mine behind me. On the lone bench in the lobby, two men sat with a blond girl who looked like she was around my age. Her sweatshirt said “Dance Team” under a large logo for a Massachusetts high school. What intrigued me more were the men she was with. Both were a parental sort of age. The taller one had a cane leaning against one leg, military-short black hair, and a stiff way of sitting that reminded me of my dad’s ex-army buddies. The other guy was way shorter, with a beer gut and a full head of graying curly hair. He talked animatedly as he motioned for the other two to lean in for a selfie. Neither man looked a thing like the girl. Were they related to her? The way they put their arms around her—beefy hands gripping her thin shoulders—made it seem that way. One of them must be her dad. Or maybe both of them? The military guy laughed and the other one touched his arm. They sat a bit closer than I’d ever risk, even with a good friend.
“Excuse us.” A family with twin redheaded jocks in Cathia football T-shirts cut in front of me, interrupting my little stare fest. When the jocks passed, though, my gaze went straight back to the bench. The two men and the girl were getting up, the shorter guy helping the taller one to his feet and handing him the cane. The way he hovered confirmed my guess—definitely a couple.
Warmth spread from my chest to my neck and all the way up to the tips of my ears. This. This was what I had left Ashwood behind to see. Two men, normal as a pot of rice, depositing their kid at college. Just another day in America, and yet it was so far outside my reality I had to take a minute and breathe.
Unfortunately, that minute meant still more people cut in front of me. I guess when you took a taxi by yourself from the airport and your luggage pre-dated compact discs, you could pretty much rule out getting any sort of move-in priority. I rolled my shoulders, stiffening my spine. Not gonna have a pity party. This was how I’d wanted things. I didn’t need my parents here. I didn’t need their disapproval tainting my first moments at Cathia. They weren’t thrilled about my choice to go fifteen-hundred miles away to a college we couldn’t afford without my scholarships, and I didn’t even want to think about what their reaction would be to the two-dad family.
No more unhappy thoughts. I took another deep breath and shouldered my backpack. My gaze traveled around the still-crowded lobby and snagged on a sign above a wide door beyond the elevators. Stairs. Good. Time to take action.
Wrestling with my duffle bag—it wasn’t quite as beat-up as the suitcase because I’d bought it for scout camp and the robotics summer program I’d done last summer at University of Nebraska–I balanced it on top of the suitcase and headed for the stairs. My room was on the fifth floor, and I did fine, if a bit slow, with the first three flights. As I started up the fourth, a clatter of feet let me know someone was heading up behind me. Fast.
I moved to the side of the stairwell to let whoever was coming pass. I glanced down and saw the guy had moved the same direction as me. He bumped into my giant bag. Bumped into me.
For a weird couple of moments we stood there—my gear perilously balanced between us—and looked at each other. He was a few inches shorter than me. Dark hair and eyes. A friendly expression. He was the kind of guy I would have noticed even if we hadn’t bashed into each other. And as my gaze traveled down his compact body and then quickly back up to his face, a memory pinged in my brain. He looked a lot like a twenty-something guy who had visited Reverend Bates and his family over in Whitman one summer. A missionary from Thailand. I’d been twelve at the time, and I’d noticed everything about him—his dark hair, long fingers, chocolate-kiss-colored eyes. Even the gap between his front teeth. I’d cataloged all his minutiae from three pews away over several long Sundays. That’s when I’d known for sure about—