Originally written for the 'gaydar' challenge in which you had to write a fic around the gaydar device that appears in the story. Gif by Frodosweetstuff.
“Stop hanging back,” Warren Wood said, his bony fingers adding another bruise to the colorful collection that adorned Elijah’s right arm as he tightened his vice-like grip and forced his son into the crowd. Elijah wriggled and squirmed through the tightly packed people with his father breathing down his neck every step of the way. His punishing hold didn’t relax until Elijah found a spot at the very front, pressed against the temporary metal barricade set up along the red carpet outside the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel.
His senses were dazzled by the garish lights, by the noise of the massive crowd, by the rapid-fire flash of cameras, as fans and photographers alike documented each step, each gesture, each pose of the glamorously dressed men and women being paraded before them like so many circus animals—or so it seemed to Elijah, who knew exactly how it felt to perform for an audience.
Black dots from the flashes danced in front of his eyes; he blinked rapidly to clear them while his left hand closed around the small device secreted in the pocket of his denim jacket. It was hard to resist the urge to drop it underfoot and ‘accidentally’ smash it to bits with the heel of his sneaker. But it wouldn’t do any good; his father had brought an extra with him, the additional $6 investment in his opinion well worth it considering the potential payoff—enough, he confidently predicted, to set them up for life. Anyway, it wasn’t the device that was the danger. It was Elijah, and this strange ability—what his dad called a gift—he’d been born with.
Some gift, Elijah thought bitterly, as he wedged tighter into his spot between two women who were clutching 8x10 glossies in their hands. More like a curse. If only he’d kept it hidden, but the child Elijah hadn’t understood the necessity for secrecy. It was just another part of him, like his ability to talk or to walk. His father, though, had immediately sensed that it might have practical applications. Over the years, he’d made use of Elijah’s gift in one tawdry scheme after another, taking what had been a source of innocent joy and wonder, and warping it into something ugly and twisted.
Sometimes Elijah wished that he would wake one morning to find himself miraculously free of it, because if he was, he might also be free of Warren Wood, forever. This was one of those times.
“What are you waiting for? Get it out,” his father hissed in his ear. His onion breath from the sub he’d had for dinner made Elijah’s already nervous stomach roil.
Elijah slowly and reluctantly removed the device from his pocket. He regarded it with loathing, although it appeared innocuous enough: a short metal keychain attached to a rectangle of mass-produced black plastic with three tiny indicator lights and a round button. Anyone looking at the keychain would think it was a gag gift, the kind of thing sold in novelty catalogs, and in fact that was exactly what it was meant to be. But in Elijah’s hands, it was anything but a joke.
They—his father—had chosen this particular spot along the Golden Globes red carpet because it was, according to the scouting Warren had done over the past few days since they arrived in Los Angeles, the most likely to draw the actors over to sign autographs after finishing their press interviews and before heading inside the hotel. Up close and personal was an absolute necessity, for Elijah’s ability to use the device grew progressively weaker the farther away he was, like a radio signal fading as a car left town.
“Johnny! Johnny!” The woman to Elijah’s left started squealing and waving the 8x10 wildly in front of her, nearly clocking Elijah in the nose with her elbow.
Even Elijah recognized the handsome dark-haired actor, though the nomadic lifestyle he and his father led, going from seedy motel to rundown boarding house to nights spent sleeping in their dilapidated Skylark sedan, usually left little time or money for celebrity watching. But Johnny Depp’s chin length hair, his mustache and goatee were unmistakable from the battered issues of People and Us magazine that his dad had bought at a flea market somewhere in Arizona and used as research for his latest moneymaking venture.
Depp veered in their direction, and Elijah wanted to yell at him to stop, to turn around and run. But it was too late, even if he could’ve worked up the nerve. Like some mutant octopus erupting from the sea, arms of varying lengths thrust out all around Elijah, holding photos, magazines, DVD cases and homemade artwork. The obliging actor took a Sharpie someone handed him and scrawled his name across them with practiced speed and economy.
“Now,” Warren hissed.
Elijah’s fear that he might be noticed proved unfounded. In the mayhem, no one saw him hold out the black plastic device, depress the round button and whisper, “Wake up.” But his palm sweated and his hand trembled nevertheless, and he had a preternatural sense of his heart beating as he waited for one of the three indicators to light up red. Ka-THUNK, his heart boomed in his ears. Ka-THUNK. Ka-THUNK.
The unnerving seconds passed until a light finally glowed red: the middle one. Elijah let out a shaky breath, and his heart rate slowed. Thank god.
“Dammit,” Warren muttered as he looked over Elijah’s shoulder. “I had high hopes for him.”
Of course you did. He’s one of the most famous, ergo wealthy, actors in the world.
“Oh my god, isn’t that Sean Astin?” The woman on his right suddenly exclaimed to her companion. “I think it is,” her friend replied, a contagious excitement in her voice. Moments later, a fresh commotion bubbled up, like a pot returned to the boil. People were calling a new name now, Sean Astin’s name. A ragged chorus of ‘Ru-dy, Ru-dy’ broke out and grew gradually louder, while a few others shouted, ‘Goonies never say die!’
Elijah had no clue what it all meant. He’d never heard of Sean Astin before, and as for why he was at the Golden Globes? Elijah was clueless about that, too, and that was fine by him. Because if Astin wasn’t that famous an actor, his dad might not know who he was either, and would let him pass untested.
“Hey, how are you doing? It’s great to see you. Thanks for coming out.” The actor’s voice, genuinely warm and friendly, registered with Elijah. He didn’t want it to. He didn’t want to connect on more than a superficial level with any of his unwitting victims. His survival, now as in the past, depended on carefully not noticing, on blurring the edges of his mind and vision, on focusing only on whatever object he held and what it was to accomplish.
But that mellifluous voice obliterated Elijah’s careful not noticing, so that despite himself, his eyes sought out the tuxedo-clad actor where he stood about ten feet away, scribbling his signature on the succession of items held in front of him as he moved down the line in Elijah’s direction. Located him, sharpened, focused… and stayed.
Sean Astin had a vibrant energy that radiated from him in a visible aura more intense than any Elijah had ever seen. He was only a little taller than Elijah, maybe five-foot-seven, somewhat stocky of build, and he had thick chestnut hair that curled over the collar of his tux jacket. Not a matinee idol by any means, but still somehow the most compelling man Elijah had ever set eyes on. He found himself incapable of looking away from him, but even more, he didn’t want to. He’d never experienced anything like it in his life before, this sensation of being a moth drawn inexorably toward a candle’s flame, aware that it was going to consume him and reduce him to ashes, but not caring.
He watched in helpless fascination as Sean Astin moved ever closer: eight feet, six feet, five feet… A black jacket sleeve came into his peripheral vision, ending in a starched white shirt cuff with a gold link and a capable, shapely hand holding a Sharpie. And then suddenly with startling abruptness Sean Astin looked up, as if the intensity of Elijah’s regard had wrested his attention away from the photos and other souvenirs swarming under his nose. Their eyes immediately met and locked, and the bottom dropped out of Elijah’s stomach.
Look away, you fool, Elijah told himself, but it was too late. The moth flew directly into green-gold flames, and was set alight.
An elbow jabbed viciously into his ribs, breaking the spell. He started and glanced instinctively over his shoulder. “Stop woolgathering, Elijah,” his father said. “Wake it up before it’s too late.”
A wild impulse to say ‘no’, to tell his father to fuck off, seized him. But then his mom’s face, pale, drawn, wracked with pain, swam into his mind’s eye, and he heard her final words to him: Stand by your father, Elijah. I know he hasn’t always been the best father to you, but deep down he’s a good man. Take care of him. For me.
So Elijah obeyed, not his living father’s dictum, but his dying mother’s plea. He pressed the button a second time and whispered, “Wake up.”
Time slowed to a crawl; the people around him seemed to be moving in slow-motion, their babbling voices sounded distant and indistinct.Ka-THUNK, his heart boomed again in his ears. Ka-THUNK. Ka-THUNK. The universe shrank to the three indicator lights just above his ragged, nail-bitten thumb. Then the topmost light blossomed to life, glowing red. Elijah turned cold. No, oh fuck no.
Noise, light, motion crashed around him again. He stumbled back a step, and the crowd surged past, inexorable as an incoming tide, blocking Sean Astin from his view. But nothing could block the small, remorseless red light or the knowledge of what it meant.
“Got him,” Warren crowed, like an angler who’d landed a particularly elusive trout.
Sean Astin was going to be their first victim.
Four days later
Warren bought one of the celebrity maps that were sold all over the Hollywood area, and circled the location of Sean Astin’s house in red pencil. Though their funds were limited, he hadn’t wanted to rush right out to Calabasas, where the actor lived. It was worth spending the money on a few extra nights at the motel, he said, and make sure they were adequately prepared—that is, had all their lies and half-truths rehearsed and ready to go. That was fine by Elijah, who wanted to put the meeting off for as long as possible—preferably forever.
When they finally set out, Elijah rode shotgun as always and gave his father directions in a subdued monotone while he consulted the map open on his lap.
Sean Astin lived in a gated community high in the hills north and west of LA. The area was an enclave for the rich and famous, and as distant from Elijah’s experience as the moon. He almost forgot the reason they were there, and gawked out the window as the badly-in-need-of-a-tune-up Buick Skylark backfired and chugged its way up steep winding roads past fabulous houses that perched on the cliff edges like elaborate eagles’ nests, framed against a sky of deep flawless blue.
What kind of money, he wondered, did it take to own a home like these? But any thought of money brought back to the forefront of his mind the reason they were there. A cold, sick sense of dread congealed in the pit of his stomach, worse than any he’d felt in the past. But then, they’d never attempted blackmail before.
It was no good pretending that he wasn’t an accomplice, nor did it matter that he was an unwilling one. Sean Astin certainly wouldn’t care, and neither would the police who arrested them or the jury that convicted them and sent them to jail. And Elijah couldn’t foresee any other end to this crazy scheme than a disastrous one.
Elijah’s tongue probed at a tender spot on his lower lip, and his mind replayed for the thousandth time the confrontation with his father that had played out after they’d left the Golden Globes and returned to the Fleabag Motel.
“It’s not going to work,” Elijah said. “He won’t let you blackmail him based on this,” he pulled the device from his pocket and held it up, “piece of crap plastic. He’ll laugh in our faces and call the cops.”
“Not when he sees what you can do. He won’t be laughing then,” Warren replied. He held up a page he’d ripped out of one of the Peopleissues, as if they were duelers about to face off with their weapons of choice. “According to this article, Astin’s married with a daughter—do you think he’ll want his wife to find out the truth about him? Or the media? Trust me, he’ll pay for our silence, and pay well.”
Married with a kid? It was bad enough that they’d be threatening to ruin the man’s career, but threaten to ruin his marriage and destroy his family, too? Elijah was heartsick.
“Dad, we can’t do this,” he said passionately. “It’s morally wrong. You were married, too, with a kid. Imagine how Mom would feel—“
Too late, Elijah realized his mistake. Any mention of his mom was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. His father’s face contorted with fury.
“Don’t you dare bring your mother into this,” he said, and then a vicious backhanded slap snapped Elijah’s head back and rattled his teeth. The sickly-sweet coppery tang of blood filled his mouth and helpless tears of pain and humiliation filled his eyes.
It was the first time Warren had ever struck him, and in the shocked silence that fell in the aftermath of the violence, Elijah caught a fleeting look of shame cross his father’s face. But it vanished almost at once. Warren grabbed the cheap tan plastic ice bucket from the desk and thrust it at Elijah. “Go get some ice for your mouth,” he said curtly.
Without a word, Elijah took the bucket, and headed for the door.
Elijah stopped with his shaking hand on the doorknob, and a frail hope in his heart that his father was going to apologize, reveal some glimpse of the good man his mom had believed existed deep down inside him.
“You’ll thank me someday,” Warren said. “When you have your own wife and kid and a nice life, you’ll thank me.”
“Not if they come at someone else’s expense,” Elijah said, fumbling with the knob. “It’s blood money, Dad. Can’t you see that?” He wrenched the door open and fled.
He made his way blindly down the hall to the ice machine at the far end, swiping at the blood trickling down his chin with the hem of his tee shirt. Not that it would matter if it dripped on the floor in this smelly shit hole, he thought almost savagely. The carpet was nearly threadbare in spots and so dirty and stained with god-knows-what that the original color was hard to discern.
He placed the ice bucket under the dispenser and pressed the button. The ancient machine wheezed to life, and barely frozen squares of ice fell noisily into the container. For the first time, Elijah seriously contemplated running—just taking off right then and there, and never looking back. He imagined being free of Warren and this downward spiraling life they led, and the rush of exhilaration that swept through him was almost frightening in its intensity.
But the feeling didn’t last as long as it took the ice bucket to fill halfway. He had only a few dollars to call his own, and no credit card or transportation. Where would he go? How would he survive? Inevitably, without a solid plan of escape, his dad would track him down. And now that he’d hit Elijah once, who was to say it might not happen again, and maybe worse, especially if he ran off and his dad found him. He had to face facts: he was trapped.
But I don’t know if I can do this anymore, Mom, even for you, Elijah thought despairingly. For the first time, her image wouldn’t come into proper focus, and her parting words that had been his mantra for so long were no more than the paper-thin rustle of dead leaves on a tree.
He released the button, and the clatter of falling ice stopped. But he didn’t take up the now full ice bucket. Instead, he felt inside his denim jacket, and removed a miniature flowerpot. It was cheaply made of an improbable clay-orange plastic, and had once been part of a Barbie gardening set. Elijah had paid ten cents for it at a flea market, one of the many flea markets and garage sales that he and Warren had haunted during their travels, searching for objects Elijah could use to demonstrate his gift and lure the gullible into buying the cheap shit Warren was selling for inflated prices.
He balanced the little pot in the center of his palm, where it teetered slightly, and then took a deep breath in through his nose and slowly released it through his mouth. He visualized all the pent-up bitterness inside him as a dark mist flowing out of him. Only when it was entirely gone did he say softly, “Wake up.”
In the wink of an eye, as if by magic, the pot was no longer empty but filled with flowers: tiny, perfectly formed and entirely real deep-purple violets. He never knew what kind of flowers would appear when he woke the pot. Each time they were a different species or color, and the element of surprise delighted him. He riffled the violets’ velvet petals gently with his fingertip, and released their perfume into the stale, close air of the hallway. He closed his eyes and let the sweet scent transport him like a magic carpet away, away, into the colorful land of his imagination. Perhaps he couldn’t escape his father, but for a few minutes at least he could pretend.
When you have your own wife and kid, his father had said. Warren was totally clueless, as usual, too bent on his never-ending quest for the riches that had eluded him all his life, to notice that his son showed no interest whatsoever in dating women. Elijah pushed this reminder of his dad away, and focused on his fantasy. In the past they’d been peopled by amorphous-looking lovers; he’d never had a chance to date anyone for real, and his experience was limited to some experimental kissing and groping with a few boys from school, and a couple more intense making-out sessions with older guys he’d met during his travels with his dad—when they stayed in one place for longer than a few days, that is. But this time the man who smiled at him and held out his hand, ready to lead Elijah away from his gray, dreary life, was perfectly recognizable: he had thick chestnut hair, a sturdy build, and green-gold eyes.
Shame filled him that he could daydream about the very person he and his father intended to defraud. The spell was broken. He opened his eyes. “Go to sleep,” he said quietly, cupping his fingers over the flowerpot so that it was hidden from view. When he withdrew them, the flowers were gone and only the cheap plastic pot remained. He tucked it back inside his jacket, and then picked up the ice bucket. His split lip throbbed and his head ached and his footsteps lagged as he returned to the motel room that might have been a prison cell, with bars created by his father’s greed and a lock made from his own cowardice.
“This is it,” Warren said, hitting the brakes. “Get that map out of sight.”
He had pulled up at the entrance to the gated community where Sean Astin lived. An ornate black wrought-iron gate with gray stone pillars on either end blocked the road, and a small guardhouse built from the same gray stone and planted round the base with pink and white impatiens stood to its left. The booth had windows on all sides, and a uniformed guard sat inside it; he was eyeing them suspiciously through the glass. No wonder, Elijah thought as he quickly folded up the celebrity map and shoved it under his seat as far back as it would go. He was probably used to seeing fancy cars like Mercedes and Cadillacs arrive, not rusted out 20 year-old Skylarks with back seats piled high with junk and rear bumpers held together by baling wire.
Gaining entrance to the gated community was the first big challenge they faced, but Warren was a consummate salesman, and an expert at smooth-talking strangers.
He rolled down the window as the middle-aged, rather portly guard stepped out of the booth and approached the car, hitching up his belt as if to emphasize the gun hanging in a black leather holster at his hip.
“Good morning,” Warren said.
“Morning. What can I do for you folks?” The man asked. His tone was polite enough, but his eyes swept over the car with obvious mistrust and a hint of disdain.
“We’re here to pick up our lost dog,” Warren replied glibly. “Elijah, hand me one of those flyers.”
Obediently, Elijah passed his father the entirely bogus ‘missing dog’ poster that he’d created using a computer in the local library and a photo of an appealing little bright-eyed mutt he’d found on a web site. LOST, it said, SCRUFFY. REWARD. There was a phone number on it—the number for the Fleabag Motel, masquerading as Warren’s ‘sister’s’ house.
Warren offered the flyer to the guard, who took it and scrutinized it carefully. Elijah could see his expression soften as he read about poor Scruffy, who was elderly and on medication for seizures. “We’re in the area visiting my sister, and her fool of a husband left the back door open. Scruffy took off and disappeared. Poor Elijah here was inconsolable when we couldn’t find him.”
On cue, Elijah assumed a tragic expression, making full use of his big blue eyes when the guard transferred his gaze from the flyer to him. The man’s expression softened even more, and Elijah could tell that he was basically a decent, good-hearted person, probably a dog lover.
“But we got a call late last night from a Mr. Astin. He told us he found our Scruffy wandering along the freeway and picked him up. Said it’s a miracle Scruffy didn’t get hit by a car.”
Elijah sniffled a little and rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. He was acting more like a twelve-year old child than a nineteen-year old man—or as close as made no difference with his birthday a couple weeks away—but he’d always looked younger than his real age, and he had long practice at cultivating an appearance of youth and innocence. In fact, his dad often seemed to forget that Elijah was now legally an adult—or more likely he preferred to think of him as still a child. It was easier that way—for both of them.
“Mr. Astin, huh? He’s a real nice guy. Loves dogs, just like me,” the guard said, softening even more. “You’re lucky he’s the one who found him.”
“And we intend to reward him, just like it says on the flyer,” Warren said. “Won’t take no for answer. I got the $100 right here.” He patted the bulging breast pocket of his white poly-cotton button down. Five crisp twenty-dollar bills were peeking out the top, there just in case he needed them as proof of their story. But that money would never see the light of day in front of Sean Astin. Not that the guard knew that, of course, and this evidence of Warren’s integrity completed the melting process.
“This is the address he gave us,” his father went on smoothly, pointing at a yellow Post-it note he’d affixed to the cracked dashboard. “I hope I copied it down correctly.”
The guard leaned down a little, squinting, and read the address. “Yep, that’s Mr. Astin’s address.”
“I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d point us in the right direction.”
“Sure thing, Mr…” He hesitated.
“Wood, Warren Wood.” Warren held out his hand, graciousness itself, and once again Elijah marveled at how, without seeming effort, he managed to shift the dynamic so that he, not the person ostensibly in authority, was running the show.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Wood,” the guard returned, smiling as he shook his hand. “Everyone around here calls me Tony. You’re welcome to do the same. Well now, directions,” he said, tipping his cap back. “After you go through the gates, bear to the right. Take the second left, then your first right. That’ll be his street. Mr. Astin’s house is on the left side, about halfway down the block.”
“Thanks, thanks a lot, Tony,” Warren said. “You got that, son?”
“Bear right, second left, first right, halfway down the block on the left,” Elijah parroted obediently.
“Smart kid you got there,” Tony said, smiling.
“Elijah’s top of his class,” Warren boasted.
Which was true as far as it went, and that was the 10th grade. That’s when his father had pulled him out of school and taken to the highways, searching for Easy Street. Elijah had never finished his high school education, but received an education of a very different sort. He worried sometimes that the taint of the life Warren had dragged him into would stay with him forever and that he’d never shake loose of it. The thought scared the shit out of him.
“Well, I’ll let you folks in. Guess you’re kinda anxious to get your dog.”
“Sure are. Thanks again, Tony.”
They sat without speaking while Tony went inside the booth and opened the gate, which slid smoothly and noiselessly across the macadam until the road was free and clear in front of them. Then Warren released the emergency brake and put the car in gear. Tony gave them a friendly wave and a grin as they drove past. Warren chuckled. “Like taking candy from a baby,” he said with satisfaction.
Elijah said nothing. Didn’t his father ever feel the slightest guilt or remorse? He wondered. But then again, maybe he didn’t need to, because Elijah felt guilt and remorse enough for them both, and then some.
It was like entering another world, like stepping through the looking glass or the wardrobe into Narnia. They drove along drowsy streets where the only sign of activity came from lawn sprinklers going full bore, spraying the lush green lawns and extravagant plantings around each home. What Elijah could see of the houses, which were set back from the street for maximum privacy, ramped up the stress-level and the sick anxiety he felt. The people who lived here had serious money and the resources to see him and his father in prison for a very long time.
Above and beyond that, though, Tony’s words about Sean Astin reverberated in his mind: He’s a real nice guy. That was exactly the impression Elijah had gotten from listening to him interact with his fans. And as for that moment when he’d looked up and locked eyes with Elijah… It hurt too much to think about it, especially now, as his dad turned the car into Sean Astin’s street.
Warren drove slowly past the actor’s house, a two-story Mediterranean style home with cream-colored stucco walls and a red clay tile roof, made a three-point u-turn and pulled up in front of it. He parked by the curb and turned off the sputtering engine.
Elijah was afraid he might be physically ill.
“Let’s go,” Warren said, unfastening his frayed seat belt and reaching behind him for his navy suit jacket. “Don’t forget the backpack.”
Elijah undid his own seat belt and retrieved the beat-up khaki canvas backpack they’d picked up at an Army-Navy store in Des Moines. It was filled with a motley collection of equally beat-up kids’ toys and other random stuff he used to demonstrate his ‘gift’. Battling back the nausea, he got out of the car, and shut the door; flakes of rust detached from the panel and drifted into the gutter. Elijah slung the pack over his shoulder, and all the while his brain was telling him: This is wrong, so very, very wrong. Drop the fucking backpack and run.
But almost of their own volition, his legs carried him after his father: across the sidewalk, up a short flight of stone steps and along a curved flagstone path to a recessed front door with a decorative fan window above it. The path was bordered by neatly pruned evergreen bushes, lush grasses and Yucca plants, and dotted with graceful stone urns and ceramic planters that were filled with flowers. A towering palm tree stood sentinel on the right. To his left a wide driveway—large square blocks laid in a geometric pattern—ended at a three-car garage. The garage doors were open; Elijah noticed a pink tricycle parked just inside, and he grew cold all over as he stared at this evidence of the existence of the daughter Warren had mentioned.
There was only one car in the garage: a white BMW convertible. “Fancy schmancy,” Warren said with scorn, pointing at the car as they passed. “Oh, I’m so gonna take this over privileged asshole to the cleaners, Elijah. Just you wait and see.”
“Dad…” Elijah began desperately, but his voice was drowned out by a loud ding-dong, ding-dong as Warren leaned on the doorbell.
Sean typed his name at the end of the email to his agent, clicked ‘send’, and froze. The sight of his left hand was still startling, unsettling. He studied it where it rested on the keyboard. The third finger was bare, and there was a noticeable narrow pale band at the base, where his wedding ring had used to be—until four days ago, when he’d returned home from the Golden Globes and taken it off for good.
In the end, it wasn’t his moving into the spare bedroom, it wasn’t Chris packing suitcases and leaving with Ali for an extended visit to her parents in Indiana, it wasn’t his meeting with the divorce lawyer to file separation papers, or the difficult, emotional coming out to his immediate family, that drove home the immensity of the change in his life. It was the removal of his wedding ring, with all that the gold and silver circlet had once symbolized: commitment, truth, honor, till-death-us-do-part love.
But sitting there staring at his bare ring finger was not going to get the rest of his very overdue email replies sent, Sean told himself. Before he could open a new email window, however, the doorbell rang. He frowned, his mind rapidly reviewing his appointments for the morning. As far as he knew, there were none. He wasn’t expecting anyone, and Tony hadn’t rung from the gatehouse to tell him he had a visitor.
He pushed back his rolling computer chair, wheels clicking on the hardwood floor, and got up. Mack, it had to be. His brother had been a rock along every step of Sean’s difficult personal journey, and he might well have decided to cancel his Vail ski holiday in order to come and stay with him. Sean had told him emphatically several times that it wasn’t necessary, but baby brothers—well, his at least—were stubborn sons of bitches and rarely did what they were told.
The living room seemed depressingly vast and even more depressingly tidy as he passed through it on the way to the front door. Amazing what a difference the presence or absence of one small three-and-a-half year old child could make—even more than the presence or absence of a wedding ring. God, he missed his daughter, and how.
Bless Mack for changing his plans, Sean thought, as he reached the front door and unlocked it. He really would be glad to have his company.
He opened the door and did a double take. Instead of his lean, lanky brother propping up the wall with his shoulder, he discovered two total strangers standing on the stoop, and beyond them, parked at the curb, a dilapidated looking Buick sedan, not Mack’s fire engine red Miata.
Careless idiot, he castigated himself. You should have checked first. That’s what peepholes are for.
The taller of the two men roused immediate warning bells in Sean’s brain. He was older than Sean, in his mid-forties maybe, and wearing a limp white button-down, maroon tie, and a navy blue polyester suit that had clearly seen better days, to judge by the shiny spots at the elbows and knees. He wasn’t bad looking, although his nondescript brown hair was receding from a high forehead and his skin was rather sallow. He had classic features and his eyes were a striking pale gray under winged brows. But those eyes were too closely set together, and his ingratiating smile was a type Sean was familiar with from long experience. He’d bet dollars to donuts that the man was selling something. He had the indefinable air of a door-to-door salesman.
The second man—or perhaps boy, for he didn’t look much more than seventeen, if that—was a whole other matter, however. Far from wearing an ingratiating smile, he looked as if he would rather be anywhere else. He stood with hunched shoulders, and after one quick glance avoided eye contact with Sean. His body language screamed discomfort, and that made Sean more wary than ever. And yet… there was something oddly familiar about him, especially about his unusually large and luminous blue eyes, the sort of eyes that made you sit up and take notice, even if you were a Hollywood actor who’d worked with more than his fair share of gorgeous men and women with orbs to die for. But the context eluded him, and he set the puzzle aside for the moment.
“Can I help you?” he asked in a neutral voice. It could be that they’d rung the wrong doorbell, and actually wanted to see one of his neighbors. It happened from time to time.
“Mr. Astin?” the first man said.
Not the wrong doorbell, then. “That’s right.”
“How do you do? My name’s Warren Wood and this is my son Elijah. I was wondering if we might have a word with you.”
Polite but with a subtle undertone of aggressiveness. A salesman, all right, Sean thought.
“How did you get past the guard?” he asked bluntly. “He should have called me first. I’m afraid I don’t see anyone without an appointment.”
“It wasn’t his fault,” Elijah Wood blurted out. “He was just being nice. Don’t blame him.”
“Elijah,” Warren Wood said, and there was a definite warning in his voice. Shut up or else. “I explained to Tony what our business with you is, and he was kind enough to let us in.”
Tony? He was on a first-name basis with the guy whose job was to keep people like him out? I’m going to have to have a word with Tony, Sean thought grimly, although in all fairness, the smooth-tongued Warren Wood had probably come up with some believable sob story to wangle his way in. “And what exactly is your business with me, Mr. Wood?”
“It’s really not something that can be discussed on your front doorstep, Mr. Astin,” Wood replied.
With his hand still on the door, prepared to close it forcefully if the man made a move to enter uninvited, he debated what to do. Although he was prone to be suspicious by nature, Sean’s instinct told him that Warren Wood wasn’t trying to talk his way inside with the intention of attacking him or tying him up and robbing him blind. No, more likely he was a down on his luck dreamer. He probably had a script with him that he’d spent years slaving over, and had had no luck through the traditional channels at getting anyone to read it. It was an old story to Sean and to anyone who worked in the movie industry—it seemed like every other person in the LA area wanted to be a screenwriter, and those who didn’t wanted to be actors. Maybe Wood was hoping Sean would direct his script or star in it—it was probably a sports story featuring a scrappy little underdog overcoming the odds, a la Rudy. And Sean had been handed more than enough Rudy rip-off scripts to last him a lifetime.
He opened his mouth fully intending to tell Wood ‘sorry, no dice, take your script and beat it’ but to his shock what came out was, “I’ll give you twenty minutes, Mr. Wood. I can’t spare more than that.” Still questioning his own sanity he stepped back, holding the door open wider.
“Thank you, Mr. Astin.”
A fleeting look of triumph passed over Warren Wood’s face as he moved past him into the foyer. The smug son of a bitch, Sean thought, and wondered again what had possessed him to invite him in.
His son kept his head down and his face averted as he passed, but Sean was trained to be observant, like all actors, and a partially healed cut at the corner of the young man’s mouth, and the surrounding purple-yellow bruising, didn’t escape his notice. He’d sported similar cuts and bruises himself on a number of occasions, courtesy of the makeup artists on several of his films where his character had been involved a fight. There was no mistaking the damage inflicted by a blow to the face. No makeup this, though, and the first flickers of a righteous indignation awoke inside him, as did a burst of self-knowledge: it wasn’t Warren Wood and whatever he was selling that had had Sean inviting them in. It was this boy Elijah, with his strangely familiar face and his obvious discomfort at being part of his father’s business with Sean. There was some mystery here that he felt compelled to solve.
Sean led the Woods into the living room. “Have a seat,” he said, indicating the beige sectional sofa that faced the fireplace.
Wood didn’t sit down immediately, but stood looking around him, taking in the cathedral ceiling, the sliding glass doors that opened onto a spacious patio and kidney-shaped swimming pool, the formal dining room, and lastly Sean’s study with its floor-to-ceiling bookcases and state-of-the-art computer setup.
Watching him assess the house and the décor—the crystal chandelier over the dining room table, the jewel-toned oriental rugs, the gleaming hardwood floors, the obviously period furniture—Sean could almost see the dollar signs multiplying in Wood’s sharp eyes as he calculated their net worth. His next words sounded as if they came straight from a bad B movie script: “Nice place you’ve got here, Mr. Astin.”
“Thank you,” Sean said without a shred of warmth. “Now perhaps we should get down to business. You have,” he consulted his wristwatch, “eighteen minutes left.”
Elijah Wood had already sat down, perching on the edge of the sofa as if afraid to seem like he was making himself at home, and placed his canvas Army surplus backpack at his sneakered feet. Like his father, he, too, was taking it all in, but Sean could detect no calculation in his wide eyes, only curiosity and even a measure of wonder, which confirmed Sean’s impression that he was no willing party to whatever was about to unfold. Wood took a seat beside his son, and only then did Sean sit, at an angle to them.
“You’re married with a daughter, I believe, Mr. Astin,” Warren Wood began.
Having expected Wood to launch into his personalized version of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Sean blinked at this apparent non sequitur. Cautiously he said, “That’s correct,” although Wood hadn’t really been asking a question, and besides, there were several clearly visible family photos in the living room of Sean with what could only be his wife and daughter. That Sean’s marriage was in name only now, and that he and Chris were headed for a divorce, was none of Wood’s business.
Wood smiled, or rather smirked. “A successful and respected Hollywood actor living in a luxurious home with his beautiful wife and adorable daughter… Some might say you have it all, Mr. Astin.”
Sean said nothing, but a prickling sensation, as of some unpleasantly slimy many-legged insect crawling across his skin, crept over him, even while he was half-tempted to laugh at the man’s over-the-top delivery. Bad B movie script, indeed, but what was coming next might be no laughing matter.
“But appearances can be deceiving, can’t they,” was what Wood said next. “After all, you are hiding a pretty important secret from your wife.”
What the hell? “Would you care to explain that remark? I’m afraid you’ve lost me.” With an effort, Sean kept his voice level.
Was Wood going to pull out a bogus birth certificate for some kid he would claim Sean had fathered out of wedlock? Shit, he should never have let the sonuvabitch set foot inside his house. It seemed he was no aspiring screenwriter at all, but rather a petty blackmailer bent on extorting money from him.
Wood didn’t reply, but looked instead at his son. “Elijah?” When the boy made no response, but only sat frozen, wearing an expression like a deer caught in the headlights, he snapped, “Elijah.”
Large blue eyes turned briefly to Sean, a desperate apology in their depths. Then Elijah fumbled in the pocket of his faded denim jacket and removed something that resembled a miniature remote control attached to a keychain.
“What exactly is going on…” began Sean, thrown for a loop yet again, as Wood no doubt intended him to be. That the man was enjoying the drama was evident.
But Wood cut him off with a sharp sideways gesture of his hand. “You’ll understand in a minute.”
Sean was intrigued despite himself, sucked into the mystery surrounding Elijah Wood and the keychain. The boy bent his dark head over it and spoke, too softly for Sean to make out the words. Then, pale but composed, he straightened, pointed the keychain at Sean, and pressed his thumb down.
For one blood-freezing, gut-churning moment, Sean feared it was some kind of weapon or possibly a remote control for a bomb—and wondered if he was about to meet his Maker in a very painful and unpleasant way, blown to bits or bleeding out his life on the floor. But nothing happened until, after a few tense seconds, long enough for Sean to break out in a light sweat, a red light started to glow.
“This, Mr. Astin,” Wood said, taking the keychain from his son and holding it out to Sean, “is proof that you’ve been living a lie, hiding in the closet. Proof that you’re a homosexual.”
Sean accepted the keychain without thinking. His brain was in a whirl, Warren Wood’s words reverberating through it: you’ve been living a lie, hiding in the closet… you’re a homosexual.
The man had to be guessing. He couldn’t possibly know the truth, Sean thought. Hell, he’d only finally admitted his homosexuality to himself a few months ago, and he refused to believe that Chris or Mack or his parents, the only people who knew the truth thus far, would be careless with information that might bring unrelenting media attention down on them—and Alexandra. Protecting her would be first and foremost in all their minds, even Chris’s, no matter how much pain and bitterness Sean’s admission had caused her.
He’d been staring blindly at the plastic device in his sweating hand. Gradually, however, it came into focus, and a laugh of pure disbelief escaped Sean as he read what was printed on it in red: Gaydar. The sense of relief made him almost lightheaded; Wood had no inside knowledge after all, just a stupidity and cupidity that surpassed anything Sean had come across in his twenty-eight years.
“You’ve got to be shitting me, Mr. Wood,” he said. “Do you honestly think because the ‘gay’ light is lit that this… this… plastic junk proves anything? For god’s sake, it doesn’t really work.”
But Warren Wood actually chuckled. “Doesn’t it? It might seem like junk to you, but you’re wrong. Dead wrong. And I’m going to prove it to you. Or rather, my son Elijah here will. You see, has a very unique talent, a gift, you might say.”
“What, he can tell a queer at five paces?” Sean interrupted in a scathing voice, too furious to care that the young man visibly flinched.
“Not exactly.” Wood chuckled again. He leaned down to pick up the backpack and set it on his lap. With calm, unhurried movements, as if they had all day, he unbuckled the flap and threw it back.
Once again, despite himself, Sean was intrigued. After hunting for a few seconds, Wood pulled something from the pack and held it out for Sean’s inspection. Whatever he’d expected, it most certainly wasn’t a small yellow, red and blue plastic dump truck.
“Take a good look at this truck,” Warren Wood said, moving it from side to side and showing Sean every angle. “It’s just a kid’s toy, no batteries, no motor, and nothing inside. Agreed?”
Sean slowly nodded.
“Now, prepare to start believing, Mr. Astin." He handed the toy to his son, who accepted it with obvious reluctance. "All right, son. You know what to do."
Elijah repeated the strange ritual he’d used with the keychain, bowing his head over the toy dump truck and speaking softly to it. Then he carefully set the truck down on the carpet.
Where it started to move. All on its own.
No, no way, Sean thought. This isn't possible. It has to be a trick. But he couldn’t refute the evidence of his own eyes, and the truck really wasmoving, even though it had no engine or batteries. It revved noisily as if an honest to god diesel engine was concealed beneath the plastic hood. Puffs of exhaust belched from the fake tail pipe. The bed of the dump truck, that Sean would have sworn on a stack of Bibles had been completely empty when Elijah took the truck from his father, was now filled with tiny flint-gray stones—grading material such as would be used for a roadbed. The stones seemed to have appeared as if out of thin air.
He struggled to make sense of what he was seeing, couldn’t, and turned his bemused gaze on Elijah Wood. The boy was watching the dump truck as it rumbled along the carpet, neatly swerving to avoid the coffee table's legs as it passed beneath, and his expression, more maybe than the evidence of Sean’s own eyes, convinced Sean that something very real, if completely inexplicable, was occurring. Because on Elijah’s face was the same expression of aching love and pride that Sean must wear when he was watching his beloved daughter laughing and playing, when he said to himself, ‘I had a part in bringing her into the world. How amazing is that?’
But Warren Wood wasn’t done yet. He reached into the backpack again, like a magician's assistant, and out came a blue and yellow plastic teakettle, the kind that went with a child's toy kitchen. Ali had one almost identical to it.
Elijah took it from his father, and this time Sean, straining to hear, finally made sense of the boy’s soft words: “Wake up.”
The kettle, which Elijah placed on the coffee table, woke up. Impossibly, white steam started pouring from the spout as if water was boiling inside it, and a thin, shrill whistle rose into the air.
More and more toys emerged from the backpack and were brought to life by the unlikely looking magician in ripped jeans and scuffed red Chucks with shiny soles. “Wake up.” A toy clock ticked and showed the correct time. “Wake up.” A small metal saucepan filled with water and bubbled on the burner of a toy stove. “Wake up.” A plastic lamp shed light from its fake bulb. “Wake up.” A pair of Matchbox cars raced each other across the rug. “Wake up.” An odor of browning bread came from a toy toaster. “Wake up.” A toy remote control was pointed at the TV and suddenly CSPAN was playing. “Wake up.” A plastic hairdryer connected to nothing blew hot air—Sean could feel it on his face and stirring the hair at his temples.
Before long, the living room resembled Gepetto's workshop gone amuck with cars, trucks, buses, even a toy helicopter, zooming this way and that amidst a cacophony of whistles, beeps, blaring horns and revving engines, while the coffee table was covered with pots and pans bubbling and sizzling on the fake burners of the fake stove.
Sean had never been so blown away in his entire life. Hell, even the moment when he'd faced himself in the foggy bathroom mirror and said to his reflection, "I'm gay," couldn't match up.
Here was every child's wildest dream come true: toys that could come to life, and not only when humans were asleep, but in broad daylight. Toys that didn’t resume their places to stand stiff and unmoving the instant the bedroom light was switched on. Sean knew he should be pissed and worried about the Gaydar device and what Warren Wood wanted from him—or rather, how much he wanted from him. But instead he hunched forward with his elbows on his knees, while an irrepressible smile tugged at his lips; his only emotion in that moment was wonder, and his overarching desire was to have his daughter beside him, witnessing the magic.
“How on earth do you do it, Elijah?” Sean asked, turning his head to look at the young Gepetto who had brought these toys to life. And as their eyes met, it came to him in a flash—exactly where and when he'd seen Elijah Wood before: on the red carpet of the Golden Globe awards. He'd been frenziedly signing autographs for his fans when the sensation of someone watching him had come over him so strongly that it was like a physical pull, a psychic fishing line reeling him in.
He’d glanced up to discover those intensely blue eyes fixed on him, and for a few seconds he’d actually lost track of what he was doing and even where he was. Compelling didn't come close to describing how it had felt. But the young man had looked away and the moment had passed, and Sean had put it from his mind—or perhaps, it was more accurate to say that his pressing personal issues had pushed it away. Yet now, he wondered how he could have forgotten, and that thought was followed immediately by a deep-seated unease. There was no denying that the pull Sean felt wasn’t entirely innocent of sexual attraction, and leaving everything else aside, Elijah Wood's probable age alone made it totally inappropriate.
“I don’t know how I do it,” Elijah replied, flushing a little and looking uncomfortable, as if he wasn’t used to answering questions about his unique ability. “I just do. But it doesn’t work for everything. I can’t wake up dolls or toy animals, only inanimate objects, and they can only do what they were designed to do, nothing else.”
“Nothing else? Trust me, it’s more, way more, than enough.” Sean let out a huff of disbelief. “It’s friggin’ amazing, Elijah. If I wasn’t seeing it with my own eyes, I’d never believe it.”
“Ah, then you do believe it,” Warren Wood said, and the sound of his voice was like a douse of cold water, killing the magic and bringing back to the forefront of Sean’s mind the Gaydar device and the reason Wood and his son were there.
“Yes, I do,” Sean replied honestly. Then his lips tightened and he sat up. “What exactly is it you want from me, Mr. Wood?”
“In a moment. Elijah, that’s enough,” Wood said curtly, and Sean felt that righteous anger stirring again at the way Wood treated his son, as if he were no better than a slave.
Elijah got up at once. First he turned off the TV with the fake remote, saying softly to it, “Go to sleep.” After that, he put the teakettle, the stove and the various pots and pans on the coffee table to sleep, so that they were once more simply inert plastic and metal. Then he turned his attention to the rest of the toys, zooming along the floor or through the air. Some of them didn’t seem to want to give up their newfound mobility and did their best to elude him. It would have been funny under any other circumstances, but Sean had no capacity to laugh right then.
Soon enough the last toy, a recalcitrant yellow Matchbox Corvette that kept reversing and shooting away from Elijah’s outstretched hand, was cornered by the sliding glass door. Elijah scooped it up, put it back to sleep and placed it in the backpack with the others, leaving the living room strangely quiet and empty. Then he sat down again. His face was pale, tense, and fearful as he shot a glance at his father, waiting for him to speak.
Sean’s instinctive impulse was to comfort him, to tell him everything would be okay. Stupid. He had no right to tell the boy anything, and surely with such a father, nothing could be okay. He switched his attention to Warren Wood. It was hard to repress the urge to wipe the smug smile from the man’s face using his fist but that was another impulse that had to be set aside.
“I’ll ask you again, Mr. Wood,” he said in a level voice. “What is it you want from me?”
“Oh come, I think you know very well what I want from you, Sean, so let’s not beat around the bush,” Wood said, and his close-set gray eyes gleamed with the malicious enjoyment of a cat toying with a mouse. “I’ve done my research and I know what a man in your position stands to lose if it comes out that he’s a queer. So, if you want to guarantee my silence, it will cost you. One million dollars in cash.” There was a sharp indrawn breath from Elijah, but Sean didn’t look away from his adversary. “I’ll give you a week to come up with the money. If you don’t then I’ll go to the media. You’ll be forced out of the closet in a very embarrassing and public way that your wife and family will not appreciate, and your career will be a shambles.”
Sean had endured agonizing weeks and months of self-examination and self-reflection before finally admitting to himself that he was living a lie. His painful confession to Christine, about whom he still cared so very much, a confession that meant the dissolution of their marriage and a world of hurt to her, had left him gutted and adrift. Now this. It was too much, the spark that lit the dynamite inside him; his righteous anger exploded, becoming so epic in its scope and intensity that he feared he might explode right along with it. He jumped to his feet.
“How dare you,” Sean said, standing over Warren Wood. “How dare you come into my home and threaten me and my family, you sonuvabitch?”
It was evident that Wood had expected the mouse to roll over and play dead, not offer resistance. But the man never lost his composure, even for a few seconds; he was no amateur at this game of cat-and-mouse. He picked up the keychain from the sofa cushion where Sean had left it, and shook it. “I dare because of this, because of the truth it tells.”
A fresh wave of fury assailed Sean, not only for himself and his family this time, but for Elijah, who was being used by his father as a tool for extortion. He snatched the keychain from a startled Wood’s hand, dropped it on the carpet and deliberately crushed it with the heel of his running shoe. The sound of the plastic shattering underfoot was intensely satisfying, even if the gesture was purely symbolic.
“Get out of my house.” Sean’s voice was shaking with his effort to control it. “I don’t do blackmail, Wood, and trust me, you can’t hurt me or my family.” He held up his left hand; it was shaking, too. “Do you see a ring here? No? My private life is none of your fucking business, but you’re a little late if you think you can use your information against me. There’s nothing you can do to hurt me.”
That did knock the wind out of Warren Wood’s sails, as he understood the import of Sean’s words and of the pale band of skin on his ring finger. His swagger vanished.
“I should call the police on you, you sorry excuse for a human being,” Sean continued.
Warren Wood surged to his feet, his disappointed hopes channeled into rage. His sallow face was mottled with ugly red splotches and his hands were clenched into fists. He stood a few inches taller than Sean, but Sean didn’t back down. Let him take a swing, Sean thought, his Irish up. Just fucking let him.
What might have happened next Sean could never say, for Elijah quickly stood and grabbed his father by the arm. “Dad, let’s go. Please.” Warren Wood shook his son off as if he were no more than a pesky fly. Elijah stumbled back, nearly falling over the coffee table, but catching himself just in time. Still, he banged his shin on the sharp edge, and tears of pain filled his eyes as he involuntarily grabbed his leg and bit back a cry.
That was enough, and more than enough, for Sean. “Get the fuck out of here,” he said. “You want time limits? I’ll give you one. If you’re not out of my house in sixty seconds, I will call the police. The only thing holding me back right now is your son, because I don’t want to bring trouble down on him.”
Wood stared resentfully at Sean for a long moment, but seeming at last to accept the inevitable, turned away without a word, stalking toward the front door.
Elijah picked up the backpack and slung it over his shoulder. But he didn’t follow his father immediately. Instead, he reached inside his jacket and took something out. “Wake up,” he whispered to it, and then held it out to Sean, who took it without looking, for as on the red carpet a few days earlier, Elijah’s eyes held him completely spellbound. Tears still sparkled there, but they were tears now of anguish and regret.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“Elijah,” Warren Wood called from the door, as if his son were a disobedient dog lagging behind him on a walk.
“I’m sorry,” Elijah repeated one last time, and then he hurried after his father.
Long after the front door had closed behind the Woods, Sean stood unmoving, staring down at what he held in his hand: a tiny orange plastic flowerpot filled with blue flowers as real as he was himself.
They were forget-me-nots.
Two days later…
Elijah leaned against the motel window and tried not to breathe too deeply. The sleazy brown polyester drapes at his back probably hadn’t been cleaned in years, if ever, and they reeked of stale cigarette smoke and rancid grease. Behind him, he could hear Warren muttering to himself as he hunted through more old celebrity magazines and scribbled notes on a piece of cheap ruled paper.
Dad, give it up already, will you? Elijah wanted to say.
But his father hadn't abandoned his scheme, despite the debacle with Sean Astin. He was still convinced that they could make a fortune by extorting money from a closeted Hollywood celebrity. One Gaydar keychain might have ended its shameful existence under Sean's contemptuous heel, but Warren had another, and he was bound and determined to put it to use.
Sean. It was so stupid, but Elijah now thought of him that way, as if he had some right to call him by his first name. But under different circumstances they might have been friends or even something more. He might have had that right.
Might-have-beens. Elijah's short life was already filled with them. Might have graduated from high school. Might have gone to college. Might have met a nice guy to hook up with. All his might-have-beens had been sacrificed to his dad's fucked-up quest for riches and his death-bed promise to his mother. But the might-have-been with Sean was by far the most painful to accept.
Sean was everything Elijah admired, and not because he was physically attractive, famous or well off, but because he was smart and strong and courageous, a man of principle and integrity. The way he'd stood up to Warren had blown Elijah away. He was accustomed to his dad succeeding in cheating and lying and duping people, like Tony the guard at the gated community where Sean lived. It had been a revelation to witness someone defy his dad and expose him for the fraudulent bully he was.
At the same time, it made Elijah keenly aware of his own cowardice, and he felt ashamed. God, he and his dad could be in jail right now if it weren't for Sean's kindness to them. Warren in his bitter anger couldn't see it, but they owed Sean Astin everything.
Because of that debt, Elijah knew that he absolutely could not go along with another one of his father's schemes. But there was a second reason, too, and that was the smile on Sean’s face while he watched the toys Elijah had brought to life. Even with Warren's ugly accusation hanging over him, Sean had opened himself to the experience with child-like purity, almost innocence. It had brought back to Elijah, even if it was only for a few minutes, how he'd felt as a child before Warren had decided that his son's unique gift could be used to defraud others. He wanted that feeling back. He wanted to own his gift again without fear or shame.
That's what he had to hold onto now, that look in Sean's eyes. He would probably never see the man again, but the best way to repay him was to live up to the decency he had shown. It wasn't too late to begin anew. He had to embrace the fearlessness that Sean had demonstrated and find the guts to leave Warren, even if it meant stepping out into the world broke and alone, battered and bruised.
Elijah had been idly watching the comings and goings of the traffic and pedestrians on the street three floors below. He stiffened when a familiar looking car pulled up to the curb by the hotel entrance and stopped. He was no expert on cars, but a white BMW convertible stood out like a sore thumb, especially on a street like this. After a few seconds, the driver's side front door opened. When he saw who got out of the car, it took a supreme effort of will to keep from exclaiming aloud and alerting Warren that something was up. It was Sean.
Why? Elijah thought. Why was he here, and how had he found them? It couldn't be coincidence. No way would a man like Sean would ever visit the Fleabag Motel unless absolutely necessary.
Elijah bit his lip and thought furiously. What should he do?
"Dad, I'm going down to the lobby to get a paper," he lied, stepping back from the window and letting the drape fall shut. "We should start looking into what movies are opening next week."
"That's a good idea," Warren replied distractedly, still scribbling. "Get me a bag of chips from the vending machine while you're at it."
"Okay," Elijah agreed, and made good his escape. As soon as the door was closed behind him, he ran, sprinting down the hall to the stairs. The hotel elevator was slow and unreliable, as like as not to get stuck between floors. He made quick work of the three flights, ignoring the pain in his bruised shin, and burst into the lobby just in time to see Sean Astin crossing to the reception desk.
The lobby, as dingy and ill-maintained as the rest of the motel, was thankfully deserted except for the two of them and the receptionist Kurt, who was lounging behind the desk. His wrinkled white short-sleeve button-down, sporting grease stains and a crookedly pinned-on faux-brass name badge, strained across his ample gut as he took a bite out of a large bear claw.
If Kurt realized that a celebrity had just come into the motel, he clearly didn’t give a shit. But then, as Elijah knew from his dealings with him, Kurt didn’t give a shit about much of anything. He took about as much pride in his job as the Fleabag Motel merited, which was next to none. After a single cursory glance at Sean he turned his attention back to his pastry and The Price is Right, blaring on a decrepit color TV in the sitting area of the lobby.
“Mr. Astin,” Elijah called out. Then he halted, suddenly overcome with insecurity. What if he was wrong? What if Sean’s presence here had nothing to do with him and he was simply a bitter reminder of something ugly and unpleasant? But he needn’t have worried.
“Elijah, you’re just the person I was looking for,” Sean said, sounding relieved. “I wasn’t sure if you and your father would still be staying here.” He quickly altered his course and walked to where Elijah was standing.
Once again, Elijah felt that sensation of helplessness, of being a moth drawn inexorably into a flame. How Sean had found them and especially why should be uppermost in his mind, but it wasn’t.
Dressed casually in jeans, a vee-neck gray sweater under a black jacket, and sneakers, Sean little resembled the tuxedo-clad celebrity from the Golden Globes red carpet, besieged by autograph seekers. But he was still the most compelling man Elijah had ever seen, and being the sole focus of those penetrating green-gold eyes was alternately exhilarating and terrifying.
Sean studied him, seeming in no rush to speak again, and Elijah thought his gaze lingered at the corner of his mouth where the still healing cut from his father’s blow was located. Finally, he said in a quiet voice, “Is there somewhere nearby that we can go to talk, Elijah? A coffee shop, maybe?”
“There’s a place up the block…” He hesitated. Nothing in this neighborhood was upscale, the kind of place Sean would be accustomed to frequenting. “It’s not exactly Starbuck’s.”
“I can’t be gone long. My dad…” Elijah said apologetically.
“I won’t keep you long,” he replied. “But I really think we need to talk.”
Elijah nodded. By mutual unspoken consent, they headed toward the lobby doors and the street. Sean cupped his right hand at Elijah’s left elbow, a light, casual touch, but it erased the pain of every bruise his father had left in the same place, and though he was hardly taller than Elijah, there was something solid, secure and almost protective about his presence.
The Tastee Café was only a couple doors down from the motel. Elijah and his dad had taken most of their meals there since checking into the Fleabag Motel, not only because it was convenient but because it was within their limited budget. A few of the regulars, whom Elijah already recognized as such, were sitting at the counter—gray men in gray clothes hunched over their yellowed ceramic coffee mugs. They looked to Elijah as if time had slowly leached all the color from them, like sun-bleached bones left to dry in the desert. Not a one of them even turned his head when he and Sean entered, only continued to stare into their coffee as if it held some secret they’d wasted a lifetime trying to decipher. Each time he came into the café, Elijah thought, That will be Warren someday, and despite everything, the thought depressed him.
The café had several booths along one wall, and Elijah led Sean to the furthest one down where they’d have the most privacy. “This okay?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” Sean replied.
Elijah took a seat opposite Sean; the red plastic was worn slick and shiny from years of butts large and small sliding across it. The off-white Formica table had only been given a half-hearted wiping off after the previous occupants had departed. Dried blobs of egg yolk and sticky waffle syrup dotted the surface.
“This is my treat,” Elijah said firmly as soon as they were settled. It was the least he could do, all things considered, and while he might not have much money, he could certainly afford to pay for two cups of coffee.
Sean didn’t argue, only said amiably, “Okay. Coffee any good here?”
Elijah shrugged. “Not too bad.” Surprisingly, it wasn’t.
The waitress, Lorraine, ambled over to take their order. Like Kurt at the Fleabag Motel, she was never in a hurry. “What can I get for you?” she asked, but Elijah could see her brown eyes dart from her order pad to Sean’s face several times while she took their requests. Of course, in LA celebrity sightings were no big deal, but Elijah was willing to bet that not many celebrities wandered into the Tastee Café.
Elijah had had no breakfast, but he ordered a cherry Danish more to have something to do with his hands than because he had any appetite. He had a bad habit of biting at his nails when he was nervous, and to say that he was nervous right now was possibly the understatement of the century. Sean was acting nice, but what was his real reason for seeking Elijah out?
“Okay, that’s two black coffees and a cherry Danish. Be right back.”
Lorraine started to walk away then stopped and turned around. “Hey, I know you,” she exclaimed. “You’re Sean Astin, you played Mikey inThe Goonies. I love that movie.” She grinned. “‘Goonies never say die’, right?”
Sean grinned back, a crooked grin that was, in Elijah’s opinion anyway, almost lethally sexy. “That’s right,” he said. “But I’m surprised you recognized me; it’s been about fifteen years since I made that movie.”
“I wasn’t positive at first, but your eyes looked so familiar.” She held out her order pad and pen. “Would you mind signing this to ‘Lorraine’?” she asked,
“Not at all.” Sean took them and carefully wrote, ‘To Lorraine: Never say die! Sean ‘Mikey’ Astin’’.
“Wow, thanks,” she said, smiling and showing more animation and enthusiasm than Elijah had seen in the ten days he’d been coming to the café. “Thanks so much.” She slipped the pad and pen into her apron pocket. “I’ll be back in a jiffy with your coffee.”
“Sorry about that,” Sean said when she’d gone. “Occupational hazard.”
“Guess it happens a lot, huh?” Elijah said.
“A fair amount. But you have to treat your fans well,” he said. “After all, without them there would be no movies.”
“I’ve never seen The Goonies,” Elijah confessed, thinking of the people on the red carpet who, like Lorraine, were obviously fans of the movie and of Sean.
“It’s really not too surprising someone your age hasn’t seen it,” Sean replied. “Every generation has their touchstone movies, the ones that make an impact on you when you’re a kid. For my generation, one of those movies is ‘Goonies’. But you probably weren’t even born then, or you were just an infant.”
“I’m not that young,” Elijah said. He knew Sean was twenty-eight. It was one of the bits of information that Warren had discovered through an old People article. “I’ll be nineteen in a couple of weeks.”
Sean stared. “Nineteen?” he repeated. Something shifted in his eyes; Elijah couldn’t tell if he looked more relieved or disturbed. But that the news had shaken him was evident.
Just then Lorraine returned with their coffee and the Danish. “Sure you wouldn’t like something to eat, Mr. Astin?” she asked solicitously as she set his mug in front of him. “It’s on the house.”
Sean shook his head. “Thanks, but I already had breakfast. Coffee’ll do fine.”
“Well, if you change your mind, give a yell,” she said.
Elijah reached for the ceramic holder stuffed with sugar packets and took out three. He ripped them open and poured the sugar into his coffee then picked up his spoon and stirred it, trying not to clink the metal against the side. Sean was already sipping his coffee.
“Not half bad,” was his verdict.
Elijah set down his spoon and blew across the surface of the coffee to cool it. He stared at the tiny ripples created by his breath as if absorbed by them and then raised the mug to his lips and took a cautious swallow. The scalding coffee burned down his throat and spread welcome warmth in the pit of his stomach, fortifying him for the conversation to come.
“How did you find us?” he asked.
For answer, Sean reached inside his jacket and took out a folded sheet of paper. He unfolded it and held it up. “With this.”
It was the ‘Lost Dog’ flyer his dad had given Tony the guard. “Oh.” Elijah’s cheeks burned.
“I was wondering how you’d talked your way past Tony. He’s usually a pretty reliable guard. Very cleverly done. Having poor old Scruffy require seizure medication was a particularly nice touch, I thought.” But he didn’t sound as if it was reason to be proud—far from it. “However, if you don’t wish to be found, using your hotel phone number for a contact isn’t especially smart. I take it there is no sister and no Scruffy?”
“No.” Elijah bowed his head, consumed with shame. What could he say? There was no defense for what he and Warren had done.
“Elijah.” Sean’s voice gentled. “It’s okay.”
Slowly Elijah raised his head. Sean’s eyes held only kindness and understanding. Too bad he didn’t deserve either. “Tony isn’t in trouble, is he?” he asked anxiously. Bad enough what they’d done—or tried to do—to Sean, without them getting the good-natured guard fired from his job.
“No, he’s not in trouble. Like I said, he’s usually pretty reliable, so I’m not going to make a federal case out of it.” Sean regarded him steadily then said, “We all make mistakes, Elijah. Trust me, I’ve made some whoppers.” And his gaze fell to the ring finger of his left hand where that pale band of skin showed. Then he sighed and said, “I have something that belongs to you. It’s one reason I wanted to find you, so I could return it. I have a feeling it’s special to you.” He took the plastic flowerpot from his pocket. It was empty again. “The forget-me-nots only lasted for a day." Sean gave a small huff of rueful laughter as he handed it to Elijah. “You can’t believe how disappointed I was when they disappeared.”
"Nothing that I wake up lasts for more than a day if I don't put it back to sleep first," Elijah explained. Then in a bitter voice he added, "It's just long enough."
"Long enough for what?" Sean asked, curiously.
"Long enough for us to get the fuck out of whatever town we're in before the people we've duped find out that the magic toy they were sold is a fake." Tears prickled his eyes as he hid the pot away.
"One of these days you won't get out of town fast enough. You'll end up getting arrested for fraud, or even worse, extortion. Is that what you want?"
"No," Elijah said in a whisper. “But my dad means to try again—he has another Gaydar device.”
“I’m not surprised. I’ve met people like your father before. This area attracts the dreamers and schemers of the world like a magnet.” He held Elijah’s gaze, and his expression was grim. “Elijah, it's past time you took a good hard look at your life, and where it's headed. I've done volunteer work in the prison system, and trust me you don't want to end up behind bars. Do you have any idea what would happen to a young man like you in there?"
Elijah said nothing.
"You know, I assumed you were underage,” Sean said quietly, “and that your father was forcing you to help him with his dirty work. But you're legally an adult. You don't have to stay with him. You don't have to be a party to what he's doing. You don't have to let him use you like this." His mouth tightened. “Or make you his personal punching bag.”
"I know," Elijah admitted. He started picking at his Danish, pulling the soft pastry into shreds with nervous fingers.
"Then why are you allowing it? Why haven’t you walked away?"
"Because of my mom,” Elijah replied, a lump rising to his throat. “I made her a promise, you see, a promise to take care of him and stand by him. It was the last thing she asked of me before she died.”
Sean’s hand came to rest over his, stilling its fretful movements. "I honor you for honoring your promise to her,” he said. “I’m sure it wasn’t easy. But I can’t believe your mother would want you to throw your life away like this, Elijah."
Elijah found it difficult to focus on Sean's words. His hand covered Elijah’s completely in a touch that was at once warmly reassuring and profoundly intimate. But he forced himself to pay attention, to resist the temptation to turn his hand under Sean's and hold onto it, hold onto it for dear life, the way a drowning man might cling to a lifeline in tossing seas.
"For a long time, I wouldn't let myself think about the future at all, because it seemed selfish, and as if I was dishonoring her memory,” Elijah confessed. “But then my dad saw an advertisement for the Gaydar device in the back of a magazine, and he got this idea to use it to blackmail someone. If what we'd been doing was wrong, this was like, oh, a hundred million times worse. I did try to talk him out of it, but he wouldn't listen, no matter what I said."
Sean's hand tightened. "You felt trapped, I'm sure. I can understand that."
Elijah swallowed the lump in his throat, and nodded. "Yeah, I did. But I still shouldn't have gone along with it. Fuck, I'm gay myself. How could I do that to someone else... to you?"
"But in the end, you didn't do anything to me,” Sean said. “Elijah, I want you to put what happened at my house out of your mind, all right? Let’s just forget it for now. What we need to focus on is your future. That's the main reason I came to talk to you." He removed his hand and sat back. He gave another of those small huffs of laughter. "I admit discovering that you're nearly nineteen threw me for a loop. I thought you were maybe sixteen, seventeen max. But it definitely makes things a hell of a lot easier.”
"What do you mean?” Elijah asked, feeling foolishly bereft by the loss of Sean’s touch.
Sean reached into his jacket a third time, and this time he brought out a white legal size envelope whose sides bulged. "I mean that I can help you without having to worry about the legal ramifications. I won’t be aiding and abetting a minor to escape from his father's custody.”
“You want to help me escape?” Elijah stared at him, dumbfounded.
Sean reached across the table and very lightly touched the corner of Elijah’s mouth where Warren had struck him. As when he’d held Elijah’s elbow, so now his careful touch seemed to erase the lingering soreness. “Yes, I do.” It wasn’t necessary for him to elaborate. Deliberately, he placed the envelope in front of Elijah. “Inside this envelope is a plane ticket in your name for a flight to Lewiston, Idaho, that's leaving LAX at 6:30. It’s yours if you want it, no strings attached.”
Out of the whirl of his thoughts, the least important question emerged. “But… why Lewiston, Idaho?”
Sean smiled. “It’s not as arbitrary as it sounds. My mom Anna and my step-dad Mike live in northern Idaho. They have a ranch there. It’s quiet and secluded and you’re welcome to stay with them for as long as you need—until you’ve made some decisions about your future.”
“I can’t believe your mom and step-dad would want a total stranger coming to stay with them,” Elijah protested.
“You don’t know my mom. Trust me, she’ll be delighted. In fact, I’ve already talked to her about your situation—just in general terms,” Sean said, seeing the dismayed look on Elijah’s face, “and she’s as anxious to help you out as I am. She and Mike will pick you up at the airport in Lewiston. All you have to do is get yourself to LAX and get on the plane. Can you manage that?”
Elijah fought down panic at the idea of flying off to some place he had never heard of and throwing himself on the mercy of two people he didn’t know. He wanted to beg Sean to go with him, not to make him do this on his own. Coward, he castigated himself.
As if he’d read Elijah’s mind, or perhaps seen the panic in his eyes, Sean said, “I’d go with you, but I’ve just started work on a new film project and I can’t leave town right now.” He hesitated. “And I think… I think it’s best that you do this on your own. I don’t want you to feel that you’re being coerced.”
“How could I possibly think that? You’ve been so totally awesome, Sean.” He caught himself. “I mean, Mr. Astin.”
“Sean, please.” Sean made an exaggerated pained look, and a smile tugged at Elijah’s lips for the first time in what seemed like forever.
“There’s something else in that envelope besides the plane ticket,” Sean said. “There’s some money. Even if you decide that going to Idaho is the wrong move, there should be enough there to get you someplace far away from your dad, and tide you over until you can find your feet.”
Tears prickled Elijah’s eyes again. “I don’t understand why you’re being so nice to me.”
“Because I hate to see a life headed down the wrong path without trying to change its course if I can. Because I hate to see the gift you have warped and misused. Because…” Sean stopped.
Despite Elijah’s best efforts, a tear escaped, trickling down his cheek. He wiped it away, embarrassed. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m such a fucking girl.”
“I’d say you’ve earned the right to shed a few tears,” Sean said quietly. He glanced at his watch, and sighed. “Shit. I hate to rush you, Elijah, but I have to be at the studio in half an hour. We better get the check and go.” Elijah sighed, too. “Yeah, we better. My dad will be wondering what happened to me.” He picked up the envelope, the paper crackling between his fingers. It was surprisingly heavy; there had to be a lot of bills inside it. How many, he had no idea, but every single dollar he would repay eventually. Right now, though, he could only think of what the money meant for him, and what it demonstrated of Sean’s generosity of heart and spirit. He carefully placed the envelope in the inside pocket of his denim jacket and pushed it down until it was secure. At all costs, Warren mustn’t get so much as a glimpse of it.
Elijah paid the check, leaving a generous tip for the star-struck Lorraine, and he and Sean departed the café, walking in silence down the cracked pavement until they reached his car, where they stopped. There was so much Elijah wanted to say, but where to begin? ‘Thank you’ seemed beyond inadequate.
“What was the third ‘because’?” he asked.
Sean looked quizzically at him.
“When you were telling me why you were being nice to me,” Elijah explained. “You said ‘because’, and then you stopped.”
The corner of Sean’s mouth quirked briefly. “Because you’re the most beautiful human being I’ve ever set eyes on, Elijah Wood,” he said, “and I’m more grateful than you can imagine that you’re nineteen, not seventeen.” Elijah stood there speechless with shock as Sean continued, “I’ll be heading up to Idaho when I’m done with this film project. It should be completed in about six weeks—along with some other things. I very much hope that you’ll be there.” He brushed the backs of his fingers down Elijah’s cheek, following the track that the tear had left on it. His touch burned like a brand. “Are you going to be okay?” he asked, his eyes intent, studying him.
“I’ll be fine,” Elijah said, and he would be, with Sean’s example to follow. Warren couldn’t intimidate him anymore. “Goonies never say die, right?”
Sean grinned. “If we had more time, I’d make you an honorary Goonie, but it’ll have to wait for later.” He took a key from his jean’s pocket and unlocked the BMW. “My private phone number and email address are in the envelope. If you need me for any reason, contact me. I’ll be there for you, I promise.”
Impulsively, Elijah stepped forward, threw his arms around Sean and hugged him hard. “Thank you for everything, Sean,” he said. He wished he could hold on, burrow against Sean, absorb the strength and solidity of him, but after a few seconds he let go and stepped back. Sean made no move to stop him, but Elijah thought he could see regret in his eyes.
“Just be careful, Elijah,” Sean cautioned, “and watch out for yourself, okay?”
“I will,” Elijah promised, and meant it. He had every reason now—the future was no longer gray and dreary, but bright with promise.
“Good.” Sean gave him a crooked smile. “Well, I better go,” he said, and with obvious reluctance climbed in the car. He fastened his seat belt, started the engine and, with a farewell lift of his hand, put the car in gear.
Elijah watched the white BMW pull away from the curb and merge into the traffic on the busy street. He didn’t move until it had disappeared from sight.
Then he gave himself a little shake, and went back inside the motel. He didn’t pick up a newspaper or get a bag of potato chips for Warren from the vending machine. He would no longer dance to his father’s tune, and he was going to tell him so at last. The exhilaration he’d felt in the past imagining the moment returned, but this time the opening of the cage door didn’t frighten him, because it had been opened by Sean, who had given him wings to fly away.
He took the stairs two at a time, his hand pressed to his breast where the precious envelope lay concealed. He might already have been in the clouds, a mile above the earth, heading toward Idaho and freedom.
“What took you so long? You’ve been gone for over an hour,” Warren asked irritably when Elijah let himself into the hotel room. He didn’t even look up from the magazine he was scrutinizing. “Give me the goddamn chips. I’m starving.”
Elijah’s heart was beating rapidly as a bird’s as he prepared to make his announcement. He could feel burning where splotches of red had blossomed on his neck, chest and face. Now that the moment of truth had arrived, exhilaration warred with terror, and in his mind’s eye he could see his dad’s hand flying toward his face. Fuck that, he thought. I’m not going to psych myself out.
“Dad, I’m leaving.”
“What?” Warren looked up, his gray eyes sharp and suspicious.
“I said I’m leaving.” It was an effort to keep his voice level, and he was proud of himself for managing it. “I won’t be a party to defrauding innocent people anymore. I’m done, through. You’re on your own from now on.”
Without waiting for a reply, Elijah walked to the closet and opened the flimsy particleboard door. As he reached for his suitcase, he could hear the creak of a chair as his dad got up from the table. Resolutely, he continued what he was doing.
“The fuck you will leave, Elijah. You aren’t walking out on me. I won’t allow it.”
Warren’s furious voice came from right behind him. Elijah straightened with the suitcase handle tightly gripped in a sweaty palm. He turned slowly to face his father, holding hard to Sean’s words to him: I’ll be there for you, I promise. He wasn’t alone now. He had a friend, someone who cared about him.
“You can’t stop me,” he said. “I’m over eighteen, in case you hadn’t noticed. You don’t have any say over where I go or what I do.”
He started to brush by Warren, but his father’s hand clamped down on his shoulder and stopped him. His cruel fingers bit into the skin hard enough to add yet more bruises to the motley collection Elijah already wore. With a sharp shrug, Elijah broke free of the painful hold and stepped back.
Seconds ticked past as they stared at each other, father and son, both men breathing hard. The memory of that careless blow to Elijah’s face loomed large between them.
“Don’t you ever lay so much as a finger on me again,” Elijah said, anger burning away the last vestiges of fear. His implacable gaze held Warren’s, and this time it was his father who looked away first.
Moving with measured steps, Elijah carried his suitcase to his bed; he set it down on the pilled maroon and navy polyester bedspread and unzipped it. He felt no satisfaction at the victory he’d just gained. There was too much pain and hurt for that, too many shattered dreams. And despite it all, Warren was still his father, still the man his mom had loved and begged Elijah to stand by. It would break her heart to see what had become of them, just as it was breaking his heart to go back on his promise to her, however needful it might be.
Elijah went to the dresser and opened the two drawers that held his pitifully few clothes. Warren followed him. A quick glance showed that his father was thinking hard; there was a calculating look in his eyes as he weighed the best argument to make.
“Like it or not you need me, Elijah,” he said. “You’ll never make it on your own. You have no skills or training, and times are tough. What kind of work do you think you’ll find out there?”
“I’ll manage. And whatever I end up doing, at least it’ll be honest work, not fraud and blackmail.” Elijah gathered up an armload of undershirts and boxers and dumped them in the suitcase.
“I made something of your gift,” Warren said angrily. “If it was up to you and your mother, it would have gone to waste—never been used except in private.”
Elijah stiffened. “Made something of it?” he repeated. “Oh yeah, you made something of it all right. Something shameful.” He forced back more bitter words as he added his tee shirts to the suitcase. “Give it up, Dad,” he said, almost wearily. “There’s nothing you can say that will change my mind. I’m leaving.”
Warren sneered. “Big words, Elijah. You’ll change your tune once you’ve had a taste of life in the real world and discovered out just how hard it is. You’ll come crawling back, trust me.”
Elijah only shook his head and finished emptying the drawers. He went into the bathroom, found his toiletry bag and added it to the suitcase, did the same with the couple of jackets he had hanging in the closet, and last of all put in his spare pair of Chucks. He zipped the suitcase shut again and carried it to the door.
All the while Warren stood silent, but his bitter, accusing gaze never left Elijah for an instant. The weight of it was almost palpable, but Elijah wouldn’t allow himself to feel pity for his father, or regret for the might-have-beens. It was far too late for that now.
Last of all, Elijah retrieved his backpack, still filled with the toys he’d brought to life for Sean. Each one was precious to him, for in Sean’s wondering expression as he watched them, Elijah had regained his own sense of wonder at this strange and beautiful gift he’d been given. He couldn’t wait to bring them to life for Sean again.
Something of the joyful anticipation he felt must have shown on his face and convinced Warren of his absolute seriousness, for his father finally broke the tense silence.
“Elijah, don’t do this.” He sounded almost panicked now. “I’ve devoted years of my life to you and your gift. It’s all I have.” He gestured at the table, at the celebrity magazines, at the map of the stars’ homes and the spare Gaydar device sitting atop it. “What am I supposed to do if you leave?”
“Do like I’m going to do, Dad. Make a new life for yourself, an honest life that won’t eventually land you in prison.” Elijah slung the backpack over his shoulder and picked up the suitcase—the sum total of his worldly possessions. Not much, but enough to be starting with.
“I’m your father, Elijah. You can’t just abandon me…” Warren pleaded. “Please,” he added. It was a word he hadn’t ever used before to his son and the truest measure of his desperation.
“I’m sorry.” And Elijah was sorry. He thought of the men in the café, those gray men in gray clothes with only their faded dreams for company, and his heart hurt at this vision of his father’s possible future. But despite that, his resolve never faltered. “Goodbye, Dad,” he said, and left the room, closing the door behind him with quiet finality.
But as he made his way down to the lobby, tears blurred his vision.
It wasn’t until the plane had lifted off and was climbing toward the clouds that Elijah, his nose pressed to the small window while he marveled at how quickly the vast LA basin turned to a collection of toy buildings and miniature vehicles, accepted the incredible truth. He’d done it! He’d really done it. He’d escaped.
He was free.
For a while he simply enjoyed the experience of his first-ever plane flight, but after a while the novelty wore off and clouds blocked the view of the earth far below. So he took the airline magazine out of the pocket in front of him and started to flip through it.
But his mind wasn’t on the glossy articles on exotic vacation destinations. It was on his destination—Lewiston, Idaho—and what awaited him when he got there: Sean’s mom and step-dad, who didn’t know Elijah from Adam. After leaving the hotel, there’d been no time to think about anything except finding a bus to the airport and making his flight. Now… well, now there was time, and the reality of what he was doing was sinking in.
Elijah raised a thumbnail to his mouth and gnawed at it while worries crowded fast and thick into his mind. Despite Sean’s assurances, would his mom and step dad really welcome him with open arms? What if they disliked him at first sight and told him to get lost? It was all well and good for Sean to say that Anna would be delighted to have him there at the ranch, but she hadn’t met him yet…
He dropped his ragged thumb and reached inside his denim jacket for the flowerpot. He balanced it on his palm, considering whether he could risk bringing it to life and discover what it had to tell him about his future. There was no one in the seat next to him, and a surreptitious glance showed that no one across the aisle was watching, so he cupped his palm over the pot, bent his head and said softly, “Wake up.” The words were lost in the roar of the airplane’s engines.
Holding his breath, Elijah removed his hand. Delicate, pure white snowdrops greeted him. Their tiny quivering bells held the scent of spring and of new life, and in the language of flowers, as Elijah knew, they symbolized hope. Relief surged through him, and hope, delicate and sweet as the snowdrops themselves, filled his heart. Maybe it was going to be okay.
“Thank you,” Elijah whispered, whether to the flowers or to Sean or to whatever fate had brought Sean into his life, he couldn’t quite say.
He put the pot back to sleep, tucked it carefully away and settled back in his seat, where he lost himself in a daydream of gold-flecked green eyes smiling into his and a warm, rough-silk voice saying, “Because you’re the most beautiful human being I’ve ever set eyes on, Elijah Wood, and I’m more grateful than you can imagine that you’re nineteen, not seventeen.”
When he was roused from his daydream uncounted minutes later by a flight attendant asking him if he wanted something to drink, for the first time he wasn’t facing a depressing return to reality in the form of Warren and their fucked-up, dead end life together, but a future limitless as the sunset sky that stretched out on the other side of the window as far as his eyes could see. It was utterly amazing.
Nerves returned, however, with the airplane’s landing at Lewiston-Nez Pearce airport. Elijah collected his suitcase from the baggage carousel and exited the terminal with hesitant steps. It was late now and dark outside, and here he was, completely alone in a totally strange place. Disorientation and a sudden fear that no one would be there to meet him seized Elijah. But even as he wondered what he’d do if the worst happened, he heard a woman’s voice call his name.
“Elijah? Is that you?”
Elijah recognized Anna Pearce immediately, for there was no doubt whatsoever that she was Sean’s mother—the resemblance between her and her son was almost uncanny.
“Yeah, it’s me, Mrs. Pearce,” Elijah said, smiling shyly at her, and the next moment he was enveloped in a soft, sweetly perfumed hug unlike any he’d known since his mom had died.
“Oh my dear, ” Anna said warmly, “my dear, we’re so glad to see you.”
The last of Elijah’s fears fled before the genuine warmth of her welcome. In fact, it felt strangely like coming home.
Two months later
“Where’s Elijah?” Sean asked the moment the front door to his mom’s house opened.
“Well, that’s a fine greeting for your mother, Sean Patrick Astin,” Anna said with mock indignation.
“Sorry, Mom,” Sean said, scooping her into a bear hug. “Arrrrrr,” he growled, lifting her petite form right off the ground. He rocked her for a few seconds before setting her down again. “Better?”
“Much,” she replied breathlessly, straightening her skewed silk blouse.
“Good. Now where’s Elijah?”
“My, aren’t we the anxious one,” she teased.
“Mo-om,” Sean said with exasperation.
Anna slipped her arm through her son’s. “You sound exactly like you did when you were a child and you wanted to go to the camera store to get more film.”
“And you and Dad told me to stop thinking about making movies for five minutes and concentrate on my homework,” Sean added with a laugh.
Anna hugged his arm and led him down the verandah that ran along the front of the spacious ranch house. “It’s good to hear your laughter again, sweetheart,” she said, stopping by the steps at the far end. “It’s been too long.”
“It’s good to laugh again, Mom.” Sean kissed her on the cheek then he said, “Well, if you won’t tell me where Elijah is, at least tell me how he is.”
“He’s been antsy as a cat on a hot tin roof all morning,” his mother replied. “Mike had to take him outside and put him to work before he chewed his nails down to nubs. Terrible habit; I should know—I did the same thing when I was young.”
“And where exactly has Mike put him to work on your forty acres? Not too far away, I hope.” Sean returned with bulldog-like tenacity to the question he desperately wanted answered. He loved his mother dearly, but sometimes…
“Elijah and Mike are out back by the barn, Mr. Impatience,” Anna said, resurrecting one of his childhood nicknames. Then she gave him a light swat on the butt. “Well, what are you waiting for? Go on, go.”
“I’m going!” Grinning, Sean bolted as if he were that younger version of himself and had finally been given permission to visit the camera store. Anna’s throaty laughter followed him as he bounded down the verandah steps and headed for the barnyard. She was right; it had been too long since he’d laughed, but now laughter was bubbling right below the surface, and all because of the young man out back by the barn helping his step dad.
When Mike had called to tell him that Elijah was safe and sound at the ranch, he’d felt a relief so profound he’d actually wept. How difficult it had been to drive away that day without taking Elijah with him was a secret he would never reveal to a living soul. It might have been necessary and right, but the thought that Elijah might not make the flight to Lewiston, either because his father found out and stopped him with his fists, or because he chose a different escape route altogether, had haunted him.
And then a few days later, he’d received an email from Elijah. It was short, not much more than a thank-you note, but it was the beginning of a flurry of emails between them that settled into an almost daily correspondence. Sean blessed the impulse that had led him to buy his mom and step dad a computer for Christmas, and get them connected to the Internet, despite their ‘what on earth do we need with a computer’ protests. You’ve got mail became a well-loved refrain when Sean logged onto AOL each evening. He could still feel the imprint of Elijah’s body against his from that unexpected hug outside the motel, and the moment on the red carpet when he’d fallen into a pair of extraordinary blue eyes was never forgotten. But he pushed them to the back of his mind and focused on their growing friendship, a friendship that kept him grounded and sane while he and Christine worked out the terms of their divorce and custody of Alexandra.
Now, with his new movie in the can and his divorce decree granted, Sean was free to begin the cautious wooing that he hoped would transform their friendship into something deeper, something lasting. He’d asked Christine to marry him five minutes after they met, and only later had he understood that his action had been the panicked move of a man hiding from his real self and desperate to conform. He would never make that mistake again, he vowed. Besides, Elijah was only nineteen, and the ten year difference in their ages loomed large. He had no right to go rushing him into a serious relationship—assuming he even wanted one.
He discovered Elijah and Mike replacing some fencing in one of the horse corrals. Elijah, wearing cowboy boots, jeans and an oversized denim work shirt that probably belonged to Mike, was wrestling a wooden fencepost as tall as he was into a hole in the ground. But when he saw Sean walking toward him, he let the post fall heedlessly to the ground, emitted a loud whoop, and came hurtling toward him, his auburn hair glinting bright in the winter sunshine as he ran.
Sean had no intention of giving Elijah anything more than a friendly, even brotherly, hug and a ‘hey’. Until, that is, he pulled back from that friendly, brotherly hug, and saw what Elijah held in his gloved palm: the tiny orange plastic flowerpot. This time, it was filled with red roses.
“These are for you,” Elijah said, his eyes shining with more than just joy.
Cautious wooing, my ass, thought Sean. He cupped his hand tenderly around Elijah’s warm cheek, and looked deep into his eyes.
“Wake up,” he said.