I'm sorry I didn't have this out sooner. I meant to get it done around Christmas, but I got writer's block towards the end of this chapter. But here it is now! Hope you like it!
Nobody had any leads. A week went by without a word from Jeff. When his mother consulted with the police, they said they couldn't do anything about it. Jeff was legally an adult now and had every right to disappear without so much as a word to anyone, apparently.
Something good did come out of it all, though, when Ellen finally decided to kick her husband out of the house. Nick only heard about it after the fact when Tyler told him. Apparently, he hadn't shown any concern for the fact that his son was missing and had even gone far enough to say it was Jeff's own fault for pursuing his "perverted lifestyle."
"I was going to tell him off for that one," Tyler said. "But I didn't even get a word in before my mom completely blew up. She screamed at him to get out of the house. We packed his things for him and tossed him out on the front lawn. He was furious, but you know what? It serves him right. Maybe he can come back once he gets his act back together. I know he's my father and all, but I think my mom should have kicked him to the curb months ago. He isn't the same man he was when I left for college, that's for sure."
"You're happy about it?" Nick was surprised.
"Sure. It is a little sad, I'll admit. I wish things could just go back to when we were a happy family, but that didn't look like it was going to happen anytime soon. This is the next best thing, really," Tyler said. "And maybe now Jeff will feel safer to come home."
"Maybe," Nick mumbled. "But I think he might blame himself for your parents splitting up." He'd known Jeff long enough to know how he thought. He would see the split as something else that he had caused by being somehow not good enough for his father. It was why he left in the first place.
"Yeah, probably at first," Tyler admitted. "But I really think he'll realize—eventually—that we're all better off without our dad."
"If he ever actually comes home…" The thought of never seeing Jeff again seemed to eat away at Nick's heart. The ache seemed to grow with each day he was gone.
"He will," Tyler insisted. "We might have to track him down first, but he will come home eventually."
"Where in the world could he be?" Nick demanded. "It's been a week now. We're not getting any closer. I'm trying to be positive, but I haven't even been able to eat a whole meal since Jeff ran away, I'm so anxious."
Tyler's eyes suddenly lit up. "You just gave me an idea!" he said. "A few weeks ago, Jeff got a job at a pizza place as a delivery boy. Maybe we can find some leads there?" he suggested. "Now if I could just remember the name… It was something like Pizza-zaz-something?"
"…Pizzazzle?" Nick guessed.
"Yeah, that place! Have you eaten there before?" Tyler asked.
"No, I just know the place. My family doesn't eat 'fake' Italian food, as my dad calls it," Nick said distractedly. "I didn't know Jeff got a job there."
"He told me on the phone a little while ago," Tyler said. "He was helping mom pay for things like food since our dad lost his job and wouldn't find a new one. And if he's living alone now, he has to maintain some income, right? So maybe he's not far."
"It wouldn't hurt to check it out," Nick said hopefully.
And so Nick and Tyler took a trip to Pizzazzle. It was a 10 minute drive and in the middle of what you might call Downtown Westerville. Nick's parents had told him he wasn't allowed to drive around downtown anywhere, but he decided this would be an exception to the rule. Westerville was far from shady, and these were dire circumstances.
"Welcome to Pizzazzle Pizzeria, may I help you?" the woman at the counter greeted Nick when he approached with Tyler.
"Is there a manager around?" Tyler asked.
The woman suddenly looked nervous. "Er, manager? Did we deliver another…bad pizza?"
"Um, no…" Tyler answered confusedly, "we just wanted to ask about one of your employees," Tyler said.
"Oh, phew! That's good. Another lawsuit and we'd be out of business!" The woman laughed airily. "I will be right back with our manager."
When she was gone, Tyler turned to Nick. "I wonder what they mean by 'bad' pizza?"
"Oh, um… I read once that a woman found a mouse head in her pizza at another location," Nick said. "She's probably rich now." Luckily Breadstix hadn't had any problems like that before. Sure, some of their food wasn't the best, but at least they abided by food safety standards.
"Sweet," Tyler mused. "Maybe I should order from here…"
Before Nick could think of a response to that, the woman reappeared with a well-dressed man at her heels. He greeted Tyler and Nick enthusiastically. "Good afternoon, gentlemen. You asked to speak with me?"
"Yes. We were just wondering if you happened to have someone named Jeff Griffin working here for you?" Tyler asked politely.
"Jeff Griffin?" he echoed. "No, he's no longer working for me. It's a shame, since he was such a great worker. I think he had his job transferred last week, actually."
"Transferred where?" Nick blurted out a little louder than he meant. Feeling suddenly self-conscious, he added, "If you don't mind telling us…"
"I think he transferred to Columbus," the manager answered. "He seemed to be in a hurry about it, too. I helped him out since it seemed so urgent and he was one of my best workers, even if he only worked here for a few weeks."
"Columbus?" Tyler echoed. "How many Pizzazzles are there in Columbus?"
"I'm not really sure. Three or four, maybe," the man answered. "I don't know which one Jeff was transferred to."
"Alright…That narrows it down. Thank you for your time," Tyler thanked him.
"Do you mind telling me what this was about before you go?"
"Oh. Um…it's a long story, really," Tyler said uncertainly. "It's a bit of a family issue. Sorry."
"Oh, I see," the man said. "Well, whatever it is, I hope it gets resolved soon."
As Nick and Tyler turned to leave, all Nick could think was, Me too…
Columbus was less than a half-hour drive from Westerville. Nick didn't tell his parents where he was going for fear that they might forbid him from going. Tyler still seemed a little wary around Nick, thanks to his panic attack earlier in the week. But so far, he managed to keep his anxiety and panic at bay, at least when Tyler was around.
He and Tyler drove separately. They figured they could cover more ground faster that way. Since there were three Pizzazzles in Columbus, they were going to each check one and meet up at the third if neither of them found Jeff.
Nick prayed that they would find him.
Nick found his assigned Pizzazzle before long in the middle of downtown Columbus. His heart was pounding as he got out of his car and walked up to the front doors.
Jeff could be here, right behind those doors. Nick was almost nauseous from the somersaults his stomach was doing as he reached for the handle.
Ding. The bell above the door jingled as Nick pushed it open. A rush of warm air that smelled of tomato and garlic threatened to empty Nick's stomach of its miniscule contents, but he managed to hold it back.
Nick staggered to the serving counter where a friendly young woman with brown hair pulled back in a ponytail greeted him. "Hello, sir. Welcome to Pizzazzle. May I help you?"
Nick shook his head. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but it suddenly occurred to him that he had forgotten to plan what he was going to say. His mind blanked and he forgot how to speak. For an agonizing moment, he stood there with his mouth half-open in stricken silence.
Maybe he still wasn't quite ready to be out in public by himself…
The woman still smiled at him, although she seemed a little confused. "Are you alright, sir? Would you like to take a seat? You don't look well." Her voice was concerned.
"I'm alright," Nick stammered, his voice trembling, but least he managed to say something. "I'm sorry. I'm not here to order anything."
Good job, Nick, he thought to himself. You're a high school senior and you still can't talk to strangers! But to be fair to himself, he wasn't really in the best state of mind right now, either.
"Oh?" The woman waited for him to go on.
"I was just wondering if Jeff happens to be working here today?" he asked quickly. It completely slipped his mind to say Jeff's full name, since it was a pretty common and for all he knew there were a dozen Jeffs working here.
"Jeff?" she echoed. "Jeff Griffin, you mean?"
"Yes!" Nick exclaimed almost before the words left her mouth. "I'm sorry," he apologized quickly, although he wasn't entirely sure what exactly he was apologizing for. "Do you know him? Is he here?"
"No, his shift just ended around ten minutes ago," she answered. "Do you need me to take a message for him or something?"
"No," Nick answered. A message would be horribly insufficient under these circumstances, and even if he did leave a message, what would he say? "But do you have any idea where he might be staying?"
She glanced around uncertainly. "I might," she said. "But I would like to know who you are, first. Why do you need to know where Jeff is?"
"I'm his—" Nick stopped himself. He really wasn't sure what he was to Jeff anymore, and he didn't know if Jeff wanted anyone here to know of his sexuality. "I'm his best friend," Nick said finally.
She seemed to consider that for a moment before nodding. "Alright. I just wanted to make sure that you're not some crazy guy out to get him for some reason," she said. "But I heard that he was staying at some hotel around the corner. I think it's called E-Z Life or something."
"You're sure?" Nick suddenly had to urge to tear out of here and go find that hotel, but he contained himself.
"I heard the boss talking about it," she said. She seemed to notice Nick's sudden impatience. "I'm guessing this is something urgent?"
Nick nodded. "Very," he said honestly. "I have to go find him now, but thank you so much for your help." He backed away from the counter.
"No problem!" she called after him. "I hope things work out for the best."
Nick didn't even buckle his seatbelt before he started up his car and pulled out of the parking lot.
It didn't take long to find E-Z Life, whichwas an extended stay hotel a few blocks away from Pizzazzle. It wasn't the nicest place you could stay—the parking lot was cracked and faded and the building was eroding away with age—but it definitely wasn't the worst. Compared to his home life, this place could feel a haven for Jeff…
Nick found the front lobby and approached the desk with as much confidence as he could muster in himself. The man behind the counter, dressed in a black button-up shirt, greeted him tiredly. "Welcome to E-Z Life," he said in a monotonous voice. "Would you like to rent one of our rooms? Starting fee is only $30 a night for a studio suite."
"No thank you," Nick said. "I'm here to see someone, actually… Can you by any chance tell me what room Jeff Griffin is staying in?"
Nick was pleasantly surprised with himself. He managed to speak coherently, he remembered to say Jeff's last name, and he'd kept his stammering to a minimum. Considering how he acted at Pizzazzle, that was a huge improvement.
"One moment," the man said blandly as he turned to the computer at his desk. There was a long, unbearable silence broken only by the tapping of keys on the computer keyboard. Finally, he said, "Room 216. Second floor."
"Thank you!" Nick said. He backed away from the counter and took the stairs two at a time to the second floor. Halfway down a long hallway, Nick found room 216. He stopped right outside the door and hesitated before knocking.
He had no idea what he was going to say to Jeff. He knew he had to convince him to come home, and he had to tell him all about Sebastian's blackmail in order to make things right. He couldn't stand being apart from Jeff any longer.
But what if it makes no difference?
Nick knocked on the door and took a step back. Several seconds ticked by before Nick heard the click of the door unlocking. The doorknob turned…
Nick's heart skipped a beat when Jeff appeared on the other side of the door. He looked tired and confused, but his blonde hair was still neatly brushed with his bangs sweeping across his forehead as usual and he still had on his work uniform from earlier. The confusion in his eyes turned to bewilderment in an instant. "Nick?" He didn't seem to believe what he was seeing.
"Jeff!" Nick had the urge to hug him in his relief, but he held himself back. He pushed his way inside Jeff's hotel room before the blonde had a chance to object "Thank God! I was starting to think we might never see you again…"
"What are you doing here?" Jeff demanded, closing the door and turning to look at Nick.
"You disappeared on us!" Nick exclaimed. "Did you think we were just going to shrug and move on? We've been looking for you for a week. Your mother is beside herself with worry, and Tyler has been skipping school so he could stay home and help look for you."
"You can't guilt me into going home," Jeff said indignantly. "I'm eighteen and I have every legal right to live my life the way I want to."
"Is this how to want to live your life?" Nick motioned around them to the studio hotel suite. They stood in what could be called the kitchen with a stove, oven, and refrigerator. Just a few steps away was a black cloth sofa and a small box-television, and directly across from the living room was the queen-sized bed, a dresser, and a door which led to a small full-sized bathroom. The carpets were stained, the walls were fading from white to dull beige, and there was a gaping hole torn in the drywall above one of the kitchen counters.
"So what if it is?" Jeff challenged. "It's none of your business anyways. We broke up."
Nick flinched at the harshness in Jeff's voice. He should have figured he'd get defensive, but it still stung. "I know we did…But I wish we hadn't," Nick murmured honestly. Before Jeff could respond, he went on. "I know it was all my fault, too. I should have been more honest with you, and I shouldn't have kicked you off the council, and I should have told you the truth before things got out of hand. And I'm sorry that I flipped out about Jonah. You have every right to date who you want…even if it's not me. But I'm ready to tell you the truth now. It's the least I can do after everything I've screwed up between us."
Jeff hesitated uncertainly. "You don't have to do that," he protested. "I didn't leave home because of you."
"I know," Nick said. "I…I know about your dad. Tyler told me everything. I'm so sorry I didn't realize what was going on, Jeff. I should have been there for you more… like I said, the least I can do is tell you the truth."
"Tyler told you?" Jeff's voice was weak.
"Only because I saw the letter you left," Nick explained. "I made him tell me, but I guess I always suspected something was wrong…"
Jeff recovered quickly. "Then…then you should understand why I can't go back home, and it doesn't matter what you tell me. I won't change my mind."
"That's not what I'm trying to do," Nick objected. He couldn't tell Jeff that his mother had kicked out his father. Not yet. It was too soon. "I have to tell you everything, why I didn't stick up for you in the Warblers, even if it doesn't change anything between us. I was selfish and I have to make it right," he said strongly. "I know you demanded to know the truth before. Will you listen now?"
"I don't even care about why you took me off the council anymore," Jeff said. "Sebastian deserves my spot anyways. You don't have to explain anything."
"But there's so much more to it," Nick protested. "It's not even about the Warblers. It's about us. There are some things I've been hiding from you that I should have told you about. And now that I know about your dad, I feel like I have to tell you," he repeated.
Jeff hesitated a moment longer, appearing uneasy. "Alright," he agreed finally. "I'm listening."
"Let's sit down," Nick offered. You might want to be seated when you hear some of this… Jeff said nothing and led Nick across the room to the sofa. Nick sat down, and Jeff sat at the other end, turning to face Nick.
Nick drew in a breath. This is it… "Well…I guess I'll start with the reason why we voted you off the council and work backwards," Nick began nervously. "Sebastian isn't as nice as he likes for people to believe, and well…he's been blackmailing a few of us Warblers."
"Blackmailing?" Jeff echoed.
"Thad, Flint, Jon, Trent, and I," Nick answered. "He dug up some dirt on all of us and he threatened to reveal it to everyone if we didn't 'obey' him. At first, I didn't think it'd be so terrible. We're a show choir. I thought he'd just demand all the solos or something. But the first thing he ordered us to do was kick you off the council. I was too afraid to object." And everything went to Hell.
He wasn't sure if Jeff believed him or not yet. "What does he have on you?" Jeff asked.
"He stole my therapy journal," Nick replied quietly. "He came over to my house for 'help with Italian homework.' But he was only looking for dirt. And he found a whole lot of it," Nick mumbled. "All of my secrets are in that journal, the darkest one being my…my suicide attempt." His voice faded when he said it.
"But I already knew about that," Jeff pointed out. "Why couldn't you have told me about the blackmail?"
"I didn't want you to freak out about it," Nick said. "And…there's something in that journal that I've never told anyone. Not even you. And I was terrified that Sebastian would tell you about it if I ratted on him."
"What is it?" Jeff asked. His voice was soft and Nick thought he might have heard some concern there.
"Please don't look at me differently when I tell you," Nick pleaded. "You know it was a really dark time for me. But…after my failed suicide attempt, I didn't just suddenly get better. I was still depressed. I still wanted to… to kill myself... But I was on 24/7 suicide watch. My parents still keep the knives locked up, and they used to keep my medication on strict lock and key too. But I was desperate. And I had a plan to try again."
"I don't know if I want to hear this," Jeff said suddenly. "You don't have to go on. I get the picture."
"Are you sure?" Nick asked. "There's…a lot more to this than I think you realize. And I want you to hear it from me, not Sebastian."
Jeff hesitated. "Okay," he mumbled apprehensively. He suddenly reached over and took one of Nick's hands in his own and squeezed gently. "Go on."
The feel of Jeff's hand in his own made his heart skip a beat. "I'm not telling you this so you'll feel sorry for me," Nick said. Honestly, he'd rather not be telling this to Jeff at all. His heart was beating against his ribcage like a bird fighting to escape its cage and it was a struggle to keep his voice even. He was afraid his palms were so sweaty that Jeff would regret touching his hand, but he wasn't pulling away yet, at least. "But anyways, as you already know, my first attempt didn't go so well. And I planned to overdose the next time. I figured it'd be cleaner and less painful. But like I said, I was on 24/7 suicide watch and my medicine was locked away. I started saving my pills and stashing them away, but after a few weeks of that, I decided that it was taking too long." Nick hesitated. "So I asked my mom if I could go to your house. It was the first time I'd seen you since before my first attempt and my mom took it as a sign that I was recovering. But…I had an ulterior motive."
Jeff's expression was dismayed. "You stole from our medicine cabinet?" he guessed, horrified. His grip on Nick's hand tightened a little.
"I knew it wasn't locked like mine," Nick said quickly. "And yes, I stole some prescription painkillers and aspirin when you left the room, but I never used any of it. I never made a second suicide attempt."
"Did someone catch you…?" Jeff guessed.
"No," Nick said. "I didn't take the medicine thanks to you. I went to your house for a means to end my life, but I remember that we started talking. You were worried about me. You said I seemed really sad, even when I smiled. You said you could see the sadness in my eyes because they weren't as bright as they used to be. And when I was away in the hospital, you said you missed me. You missed me. And I started thinking, if I killed myself, at least one person would miss me when I was gone. And that was all I could think about when I was at home that night with all of those pills, because you were my best friend and I couldn't imagine how you might feel if I actually did it. Even if you were the only person besides my own parents who would care if I was gone, it still gave me a little more reason to live." By the time he finished, Jeff was practically cutting off the circulation in Nick's hand, he was squeezing it so tightly.
"I remember that day," Jeff said softly. "Why were you so afraid of telling me?"
"I stole from you," Nick pointed out. "And I planned to kill myself with what I stole. I didn't even want you to find out about my original suicide attempt, and this was ten times worse."
"But you didn't take any of the pills," Jeff pointed out. "You were stronger this time. I don't care that you got them from my house. If you'd stolen them from anywhere else, you might not be here today…" his voice faltered at the end. "Sebastian is blackmailing you about this?" he suddenly demanded in furious disbelief.
"Yes. And he's blackmailing some of the other guys, so I'm not the only one with something to lose," Nick said. "So you can't tell him that you know."
"But it's horrible to use something like that to blackmail someone! What kind of sick person is he?"
"I thought the same thing," Nick mumbled. "I don't know if he would actually tell everyone, but none of us wants to take any chances."
"What does he have on everyone else?" Jeff asked.
"I don't know. And I hope I don't find out," Nick said. He looked at Jeff uncertainly. "Are we okay now?" he asked anxiously.
Jeff smiled very slightly. "We're okay," he decided. He leaned closer to Nick and hugged him close. "I've missed you so much."
Nick closed his eyes and held Jeff tightly. "I've missed you, too," he murmured. He was weak from the relief that Jeff forgave him and it felt like an incredible weight he hadn't even known was there was lifted from his heart. He didn't know if this meant that they would get back together or not, but right now, he didn't care. A few minutes ago, he doubted Jeff would ever forgive him for what he'd done, and just to know that they were alright now was more than he could have hoped for.
Now he had no secrets with Jeff.
Nick's cell phone rang in his pocket suddenly and he was forced to pull away from Jeff to retrieve it. He read the caller ID. "It's Tyler," he told Jeff. "Shoot. I forgot about him… Is it alright if I tell him where we are?"
Jeff shook his head. "I don't mind. I guess I do have some explaining to do…"
Nick answered the call and brought the phone to his ear. "Hello?"
"Where the hell are you?" Tyler demanded on the other line. "I texted you like eight times! I was beginning to worry that I was going to have to tell everyone that you were missing now, too."
"Sorry," Nick said with a small laugh. "I found Jeff."
"Seriously?" Tyler exclaimed. "Where? At Pizzazzle? Did you talk to him? Is he there now?"
"Not at Pizzazzle. We're at a hotel called E-Z Life near downtown. And yes, I talked to him. We're in room 216."
"I'll be there in five minutes," Tyler told him. "Don't go anywhere!" And then the other line clicked off.
"He's coming now," Nick said. He put his phone back in his pocket. "Are you still completely against coming home?"
Jeff frowned. "I already told you. I can't go home," he said seriously.
"It's not your fault, Jeff. You didn't do anything to deserve those things your father did to you," Nick said softly. "You shouldn't have to leave home because of him."
"What else am I supposed to do?" Jeff demanded. "And if it's not my fault, whose is it? Everything was fine until I came out of the closet. I don't regret being with you, but maybe things would have been better if I'd just kept my mouth shut. It has cost my whole family nothing but pain."
"No one else blames you for anything, Jeff," Nick insisted. "Your mom doesn't think you've done anything wrong and she was more upset than I've ever seen her this past week. And…" he trailed away uncertainly. Jeff had a right to know about what was happening with his family. But would it push him further away, or make him feel safer about returning home?
"And what?" Jeff pressed.
"She kicked your dad out of the house," Nick answered quickly.
"What?" Jeff gasped. "Why?"
Maybe because he's a jackass? Nick didn't think he was really in a place to say this out loud though. "Because she wants you to come home," Nick said. "She thought you'd feel safer with him gone."
"I left to keep that from happening!" Jeff protested.
"Don't you think your family is better off without him?" Nick reasoned. "He didn't have a job and he was stealing money from your mom to pay for alcohol! He was the one with a problem, Jeff, not you. You did nothing wrong."
"My parents have been together for twenty years," Jeff said slowly. "And they're going to split up now thanks to me."
"It's not your fault!" Nick insisted. "And maybe they won't split up. Maybe your dad will take this ultimatum and get over his alcohol addiction. You know he wasn't getting any better before, and your family deserves better than that."
"He never drank until I came out of the closet." Jeff was determined to make this entire thing his fault. "So he wouldn't even have a drinking problem if it wasn't for me."
Nick thought he saw a tear sparkle in Jeff's eye, but he blinked it away so fast it was difficult to be sure. Before Nick could say anything more—which he wasn't really sure what to say anymore with Jeff insistent on blaming himself—there was a knock at the door. "That's probably Tyler," Nick said as he went to answer it.
Sure enough, Tyler was on the other side of the door, appearing stressed yet relieved when he saw Jeff. He didn't say a word of greeting and went straight for his younger brother, drawing him into a big embrace. "I thought I told you to come to me if anything went wrong at home with dad," he said softly. "You scared the hell out of all of us, running off like this."
Jeff made little effort to hug Tyler back, but he did bury himself in Tyler's shirt. "Everything was wrong," he choked.
"I told him that your mom kicked your dad out," Nick told Tyler quietly. "He thinks it's his fault."
Tyler sighed and pulled back to look at Jeff. "Why would you think for a moment that it's your fault?"
"Dad never even touched alcohol before I came out of the closet," Jeff echoed what he had just told Nick moments ago in a weak and tired voice.
"So you think that your sexuality ruined our family?" Tyler figured. "You know, I think it was dad's bigotry that ruined our family. And now that he's out of the picture, we can fix the mess he made of our lives."
"You don't understand," Jeff protested.
"Maybe I don't," Tyler admitted. "We don't think the same way. But I know I don't blame you for the kind of person dad has become, and neither does mom or Lily, either. We just want you to come home."
Jeff still seemed uncertain, but it looked like Tyler might be getting through to him.
"Don't you want to come home?" Tyler asked softly.
Jeff sniffled and dropped his gaze to the ground. "Yes," he finally admitted in a small voice. "I do. I want to go home."
Tyler placed his hands on Jeff's shoulders gently and said, "Then let's go home."
What did you think? Please review!
Also, do you think it's too late for me to write a Christmas themed chapter? I had planned to write one but I was too slow with writing. (Sorry!) Should I write a Christmas/Holiday themed chapter, or are you guys sick of the holidays?