Nicholas, securely strapped into the pilot’s seat, stared through the tinted windshield. Unable to slow his racing thoughts, sleep had evaded him until he finally dozed off around 4 am. Not one to let time be wasted, however, he’d made good use of that downtime. He’d compiled a mental list of everything to check before hitting the road … gas, oil, clean air filter, wiper fluid, functioning septic system, first aid kit, etc. … and had, for the third time, gone through all of his meager possessions to ensure that he’d not forgotten anything that he couldn’t live without. Now, having checked and double-checked everything on his list, he sat motionlessly.
“Uh, dude?” Griffin, dressed like a pubescent Jimmy Buffet, arched one blond eyebrow in Nicholas’ direction. “Ground control to Major Tom.”
“This is so surreal!”
“Yeah, yeah. Have another guzzle of your cup o’ joe there and turn the key. I need to put Armpit, North Carolina in the rearview mirror!”
Nicholas ignited the engine, which purred like a kitten, punched the Spotify road trip playlist he’d already programmed (#1 on the checklist), and pulled out.
“I can see clearly now, the rain is gone, I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright), sunshiny day!” Now snapped fully out of his reverie, Nicholas sang out, right along with Johnny Nash, while Griff melodramatically faux-gagged.
“Rule #1, the driver chooses the tunes. When it’s your turn in the captain’s chair, we’ll listen to your crap … uh … I mean, captivating musical stylings.”
At the end of the rural road, Nicholas idled at the stop sign.
“Buddy, it’s going to be a really long trip if you keep going on hiatus. What now?”
“Left or right?”
“I don’t know or care. You’re driving. Drive somewhere. I assumed Mr. DetailedNotesAndChecklists would have at least the next six months mapped out. You’ve had since yesterday afternoon to figure it out!”
“I seriously haven’t even thought about where to go. I was too excited just to be going … anywhere!”
“Well, let’s hit the beach and head north. How ’bout that?”
“Perfect. You’re definitely properly attired. However, you may want to hit up a WalMart before we move north of the Mason-Dixon Line,” Nicholas teased. “Left it is. We’ll hit Hwy 264 over to Swan Quarter and take the ferry over to Ocracoke. That should be about lunchtime, and we can dive headfirst into that big cooler of deliciousness that my mom packed for us. Then we’ll head up the Outer Banks to infinity and beyond!”
Nicholas signaled and turned onto Hwy 13 as, right on cue, Johnny Nash segued into the classic Jackson Browne road tune …
“Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels. Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields. In ’65 I was seventeen and running up 101. I don’t know where I’m running now, I’m just running on.”
“Sing it with us, Griffin!”
“Running on, running on empty; running on, running blind; running on, running into the sun but I’m running behind.”
Leo Kennedy hated family picnics, and the annual Memorial Day picnic at his grandparent’s house was always the worst, in his opinion. At least this year the weather was beautiful, eighty-four degrees and not a cloud in the sky. Last year it rained, and everyone was jammed together inside the house. He scanned the crowd of relatives, looking for his brother Kameron, but he didn’t see him anywhere.
Leo grabbed a bottle of water out of the cooler and jumped over the porch railing, heading for the edge of the yard. If he couldn’t find Kam, he just wanted to be left alone. He was about to sit down when he noticed someone else sitting by themselves just staring off into the distance. Leo thought for a moment then picked up his chair and strolled over to where the man was seated. He set his lawn chair down next to the older man and sat down. “Hey, Uncle Kai, nice day, isn’t it?”
Kai took off his sunglasses and made a show of looking all around and behind his nephew. “You look like my nephew Leo, but he usually has two shadows close at his heels. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him by himself before.”
Leo snorted with laughter. “Jazz had to go to his own family picnic, and I’m not sure where Kam disappeared to. I’m by myself, sometimes.”
“Jasper is a very close friend, isn’t he?” Kai asked with a raised eyebrow.
Leo blushed. “We’ve been best friends since the first day of kindergarten and sophomore year is over in two weeks! So, yeah, we’re pretty close.”
“Leo, I want you to know that you can come to me any time and ask me anything. Even things that your parents may not be willing to understand.”
“I know, Uncle Kai. Thank you.” Leo squirmed in his seat and then looked back at his uncle. “Uncle Kai, how come grandma won’t even mention your friend’s name. The one that died in the war. Today is Memorial Day, a day to remember people like that. The family knew him. Shouldn’t we celebrate him most of all?”
Tears stung Kai’s eyes. “I celebrate him every single day, Leo.”
“He was your best friend, wasn’t he?”
The beginnings of a smile formed on Kai’s face. “Yes, Leo, he was my best friend.”
“Was he,” Leo hesitated, “was he more than your best friend?”
“He was much more than my best friend. He was the love of my life. He was my hero long before he was a hero to the country. He won me my own freedom, then all too soon he went off to Kuwait and Iraq to win others their freedom.”
“What do you mean he won you your freedom? Freedom from what?”
“Freedom from your grandmother. I’m sure you can see how she is. You are a brilliant boy for sixteen, Leo. After your father moved out, your grandmother monopolized all my time. She wanted me with her always. Anytime that anyone got close, she tried to push them away. Doug was the only one who stuck by me, and it was only because of him that I managed to get out from under her thumb. That’s why she still hates him to this day, even though he’s been dead for twenty-eight years.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean about grandma. I love her, but she is a bit overbearing. How did he help you, though? Why does she hate him so much?”
“You say she’s overbearing? That doesn’t even begin to describe how she was when I was your age. She had me scared of everything. Fear was my constant companion, especially fear of change. Any sort of change sent me into extreme anxiety attacks. Doug was the only one who could pull me out of it. By the time that I was eighteen, I knew that the only way for me to have a normal life was to get out of this house. She tried to make me stay, but thoughts of Doug pushed me forward through my fear. Let me tell you a story, Leo. The story of the day that I finally moved out of this very house. The day that Doug won his first battle and gained me my freedom.
The door was open, but fear held Kai in place. He needed to go through the door. Four steps, only four steps. He just needed the courage to make his feet take those last four steps.
Fear gnawed away at Kai Kennedy’s very soul, infecting almost everything in his life. Now, finally, on the verge of freedom, he was even scared of not being scared anymore. He was used to the fear. Change is what had him scared now. Change of any kind was a frightening prospect for Kai.
Kai’s life had been almost entirely without change for nearly all his eighteen years. Kai lived with his mother. He knew his mother loved him, but it was an over-bearing, jealous love. Kai’s mother craved attention. She needed all of Kai’s attention. All of Kai’s love. If he gave love or attention to anyone or anything else, it sent his mother into a rage. So, Kai gave his mother the care she needed. He didn’t go out with friends, he didn’t date, he didn’t do much of anything except spend time with his mother.
Kai’s thoughts returned to his present situation. The doorway. He still wasn’t any closer to it than he had been ten minutes ago. He knew a different life waited for him outside that door. He wanted that life, but he was scared to leave this one. It’s not that he liked the life he was living; it’s just that he was used to it. It was comfortable. Kai smiled for a minute. The reasons he thought of as positive were precisely the reasons that Doug told him he needed to change it. It was Doug that made Kai smile now. It was Doug that gave Kai the strength to consider this change. Thoughts of Doug made Kai smile again, and he took a step towards the door.
Three more steps now and he’d be free, just three more steps.
Kai couldn’t see through the doorway for some reason. It was just darkness where the doorway should have been even though the door was open, and it was the middle of the afternoon. Kai was beginning to feel light headed and dizzy from all the emotions raging through his heart and mind. His thoughts drifted back to his mother.
There had been plenty of good times between Kai and his mother. They had a lot of fun together over the years. He laughed when he remembered some of the family gatherings. He loved his family, especially his mom. He just wished she would let him love other people as well. When Kai would get close to someone, his mother would grow angry and try to destroy the relationship. She would try to fill Kai’s mind with any fault she could find with the other person. If that didn’t work, she would just use up so much of Kai’s time doing things for her that the other person would grow tired of it and go away on their own. The exception to this was Doug. Doug had stayed by Kai’s side through thick and thin. Doug wouldn’t allow Kai’s mother to drive him away. Kai’s mother hated Doug because of that, but Kai wouldn’t listen to her about him. The thought of his mother’s hatred of the one thing he loved angered Kai, and he took another step forward.
Two more steps now, just two more steps.
Kai loved his mother… and hated her at the same time if that was possible. He loved her for all the good things she had brought into his life. She had brought him up well and taught him a lot, but she had also sheltered him from the rest of the world. Kai didn’t believe that she did it on purpose. She craved the attention and felt she deserved it. She told him she had given up a lot for him, and she expected him to do the same for her. Kai had done just that. He had been made fun of all through school because he was so different from everybody else. He was always off by himself and didn’t get involved in any activities with anyone else. That was until Doug came into his life. Doug talked Kai into doing things. Not terrible things, just things that a kid like Kai should have been doing all along. Things like going to Prom. That’s when Kai’s mother’s dislike of Doug became pure hatred. She could sense that Kai was drifting away from her. She started trying to drive a wedge between Kai and Doug, but by now it was already too late. Her meddling in their relationship just drove Kai closer to Doug instead of the other way around. Now, two months later, a moving van stood packed in the driveway, packed with all of Kai’s things. Kai was moving out of his mother’s house and into his own apartment. An apartment he would share with Doug. Kai’s mother told him that if he did that that she would never want to see him again. She thought that he would change his mind. He didn’t. He cried at the things his mother said to him and about him, but he felt she would reconsider after she calmed down. Her threats only made him surer of his decision. He cleared his head and came back to the present again. He took another step towards the doorway.
One more step now, only one more step.
Kai’s mother was screeching in the background. “Kai, you will be sorry if you go with him! Don’t leave me! He won’t be there for you like I always am, Kai! You’re making a mistake! Don’t go to him!”
Just as Kai thought he couldn’t take that last step, a hand reached through the doorway. Kai smiled. He would recognize that hand anywhere. Kai could have grasped that hand and let himself be pulled through the door, but Kai knew for his own peace of mind that he needed to take the last step by himself. Knowing who was on the other side, waiting for him to step through was all the help he needed. Kai took a deep breath, looked back one last time, and then stepped through the doorway.
As soon as he was on the other side of the door, Kai felt a huge weight lift from his shoulders. The stress of the moment overcame him, and Kai felt himself grow weak, the world around him started to go dim. Kai started to fall, but he never hit the ground. He felt himself being carried down the steps and away from the house. Kai looked up and saw the face of his best friend, his boyfriend, Doug. Kai knew he was safe. His last thought before he allowed himself to drift off was that his life would never be the same. Kai wasn’t scared anymore. Kai Kennedy was finally free.
Leo had tears streaming down his face. “Uncle Kai, that was a beautiful story, and Doug should be celebrated just for that even if he hadn’t ever gone to war.”
Kai patted his nephew’s hand. “Thank you for saying that, Leo, but I think you know that most in this family would not agree.”
Leo blushed. “I know. It really sucks. You don’t think my dad would accept a relationship like that, do you?”
Kai struggled to find the right words. “The look in his eyes, even today, when I mention Doug tells me that he probably wouldn’t. Times are a lot different now than they were in 1986 when I was your age. Even if you don’t feel that you can tell your dad yet, there must be people you can talk to.”
Leo’s eyes grew wide. “Me? What makes you think that I’m asking these questions because of me?”
Kai rolled his eyes. “I’m old, but I’m not dead. Even before we started talking today, I suspected. I see the way you and Jasper look at each other. It reminds me so much of Doug and me. Are you two, uh, are you two a couple?”
Now Leo was really blushing. “No! Nothing like that!” He shrugged. “Not yet, anyway. We have talked about it. A lot. And Uncle Kai, you’re not old!”
Kai chuckled. “At sixteen, I definitely considered forty-eight old but thank you for saying that.”
“You’re the coolest adult I know, Uncle Kai. You’re not gonna tell anyone about me, are you?”
“Of course not. No one should ever be outed against their will by someone else. I do suggest you find someone that you trust to tell. Maybe your brother or your sister?”
“Definitely not Allison. Maybe Kam. I can trust him.”
“Speak of the devil. There he is now.”
Kam waved from the other side of the yard. Leo grinned. “I should go check on him before he gets himself into trouble. Thanks for the talk, Uncle Kai. I’m glad you know. Your friend Doug was a true hero. Happy Memorial Day!”
Kai Kennedy wiped the tears from his eyes as he watched Leo race across the yard. Tears of sadness at the memory of his lost love, but also tears of joy at the bright future he sensed for his young nephew.