Clay drove through the streets of Pawley’s Corner at lightning speed. He had to get to her. He turned his cruiser lights on, causing the cars to part and let him through. He cursed himself for not seeing it before. It was his job to protect her, for crying out loud, to protect the one he had left.
He was driving past the neighborhood grocery store when something caught his eye. He slowed down, his brow furrowing at the sight. He pulled over to the shoulder of the road, rolling down his window.
“Kyle?” he called to the kid.
He looked up at him, his eyelid purpled, a trail of dried blood down the side of his face. His mouth housed a deep red cut upon a swollen lip. Instead of looking away or ignoring him like he usually did, he stood there, his face full of defeat, waiting for Clay to respond.
“Kyle, what happened to you?” he asked, leaning out of his window further.
“It’s nothing,” the boy said, rubbing his swollen lip with his arm.
“Get in, son. I’ll take you home.”
Without argument, the boy walked to the door behind Clay, attempting to open it. Clay stopped him. “You can ride up front with me, if you’d like.”
Kyle looked as though he were thinking for a moment before he walked around to the passenger’s side and climbed in.
Clay got a better look at his face once he was close to him. “My god. Are you sure you’re all right?”
“It looks worse than it feels,” Kyle said softly, shrugging his shoulders.
“Yeah, well, it looks bad. Grab a napkin out of the glove box there and try to clean up a bit. Your mother is going to freak out when she sees you.”
“You can’t tell her!” Kyle begged, fear filling his face.
Clay half-laughed. “You don’t think she’s going to notice?” he asked. “Buckle up.”
Kyle did as he was told, buckling his seat belt before grabbing a napkin and wiping off the blood on the side of his face.
“Who did this to you?” Clay asked, as he pulled back out onto the road.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Well, as someone who came home with quite a few bloody noses in my day,” Clay said, “I can tell you that it does matter.”
“You got in fights?”
Clay shook his head. “I wish I could say I didn’t, you know…good role model and all, but the truth is I was a head strong teenager and I started a lot more fights than I could finish.”
Kyle looked at him. “My dad always told me I had to turn the other cheek. He said fights weren’t worth it.”
“He was right.”
“I didn’t start the fight,” he said. “I’ve never started a fight.” He lowered his head as if he were ashamed.
Clay reached over, squeezing his shoulder. “That’s a good thing. You don’t want to be the one starting fights. It never ends well for anyone.”
“So, what should I do then? And don’t you dare say tell an adult.”
Clay frowned. “Does this happen a lot?”
“Once or twice. It’s never been this bad.”
“Is it your friend? Someone you hang out with?”
“No,” he said firmly. “Just some idiot jocks.”
As they pulled into the driveway and the car stopped, Clay turned to him. “Listen, Kyle, I know I don’t know you that well, but being completely serious…if someone is hurting you, I’ll make sure it stops.”
“I can handle it,” he told him.
“Are you sure?” He smiled. “That’s one of the perks of having a cop as a friend.”
Kyle nodded, though he didn’t immediately insist they weren’t friends as Clay had expected him to. “Thanks, really. But I’m okay.”
Clay opened the car door, climbing out. “Well, you are until your mom sees that face.”
Kyle groaned, climbing out of his side and making his way up the walk. He stopped, turning to look at Clay. “Thanks for the ride, Clay.”
Without waiting for a response, he turned back around, walking toward the door. Clay smiled to himself, warmed by the gesture. As the front door opened, Clay was suddenly brought back to reality. He’d come there with a mission.
Peighton and Frank were standing in the living room, the air filled with tension. When Peighton saw Kyle’s face, she gasped, rushing toward him. “Kyle?” she exclaimed, grabbing hold of his cheeks gently. “Oh my god, Kyle, what happened to you?”
“I’m okay, Mom,” he told her. She pulled him into a hug, looking over his shoulder at Clay.
Clay shrugged. “He’s okay. I found him walking home.”
“Walking home? Why didn’t you call someone?” She turned to Frank. “I thought you were having him followed?”
Frank stepped up, looking at his phone. “I thought I was too. Let me go call Paul and see what’s going on.”
“Having me followed? Why?” Kyle demanded, his voice suddenly full of anger.
“Kyle!” Peighton yelled back. “Why? Look at yourself! I don’t know what’s going on with you lately. First you disappear and run away to your grandparents, and then you come home looking like you’ve just left a bar brawl. What am I supposed to do?”
“You’re supposed to trust me, Mom,” he yelled at her, turning to run toward his room.
“Don’t you dare run away from me, Kyle. We are going to get to the bottom of this right now. I want to know what happened to you.”
“It was just an accident. I’m fine.”
“You aren’t fine,” Peighton spewed at him. “Your face is a mess! Let me see your hands.” She held out her hands for his. “Have you been in a fist fight?”
He displayed his perfectly clean knuckles. “No Mom! It wasn’t like that.”
“Then what, Kyle? What on earth happened to you?”
“I was beat up, okay?” he yelled at her, his body rigid. “Some idiot guys beat me up. I’m fine. I just need to stay away from them.”
“Who was it?” she demanded. “Who was it, Kyle? I want to talk to their parents.”
“Mom!” he said, mortified. “You can’t talk to their parents. You just need to mind your own business.”
“You are my business, son. You are it. And I’m not going to stand by and let you get hurt without doing anything about it. I’m not going to do it. Now, you tell me who they are this instant or I’ll—”
“You’ll what, Mom? What are you going to do?”
“Why are you being so hateful to me, Kyle? What have I done to make you hate me so much?”
“I don’t hate you. I hate myself. I hate myself because it’s all my fault that everyone hates me,” he said, his voice breaking. He placed his face into his hands as the atmosphere in the room changed drastically. Frank walked back into the room, his phone still in hand, a confused look on his face.
“What did you say?” Peighton asked, oblivious to Frank standing behind them.
Kyle didn’t answer, his hands still covering his face as his shoulder shook with sobs. She approached him, her hands around his back. “Kyle, sweetheart, no one hates you. No one. We love you more than anything. What would make you say something like that?”
“Dad hated me,” he told her, sinking to the ground in all out moans.
“Your father loved you,” Peighton stated firmly, moving to the ground with him.
“He hated who I was.”
Frank walked over, bending down beside Kyle, his hands near Peighton’s. Clay watched them, unsure of his place but unwilling to leave. He wasn’t leaving her alone until they’d talked, though this obviously wasn’t the time.
“What do you mean, Kyle?” Peighton asked, her face completely dumbfounded.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters, Kyle,” Frank said finally.
Peighton looked up at him, confusion on her face. “Do you know what he’s talking about?”
“Kyle,” Frank urged. “It’s okay.”
“It’s not. It’s not okay,” Kyle said through his tears, his face buried in the carpet, torso flat on the floor.
Peighton pressed her lips to Kyle’s head, giving Frank a stern look. “Someone needs to tell me what’s going on.”
Kyle continued to cry as the room grew quiet. Peighton’s entire body encompassed her child, covering and comforting him in the only way she seemed to know how. “Kyle.” Clay heard her whisper his name in his ear. “Kyle, sweetheart, nothing you say could make me love you any less. Please, please just tell me what’s going on.”
After a few moments, he sat up, Peighton leaning back off of him. He looked at Frank, his eyes full of sorrow. “You know?”
Frank nodded, nudging his head toward Peighton. “Go on.”
Kyle looked at his mother. In that moment, he looked so small, his body as close to the ground as possible. It was a position of submission, as if he were waiting to be brutalized. He took his mother’s hands in his and Clay knew whatever was about to happen would change everything about the world they knew. All of the air in the room seemed to be sucked out as they waited for him to speak. Finally, Peighton opened her mouth, beginning to beg him to tell her what was going on. Before the first words could come out, Kyle spoke the three words Clay had not seen coming.
“Mom, I’m gay.”