Read the first two chapters of Gentleness in Sin EARLY and for FREE
I know, the last book ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, so I wanted to give you a little sneak peek of the next book early and for free! I hope this satisfies you for the next few days as you *patiently* wait for Gentleness in Sin to meet the world!
Also, starting March 22nd, you and your friends will be able to buy the ENTIRE Take me to Church series on Kindle for $9.97! Yes, that’s less than 10 dollars for all four books which equal HOURS of entertainment. This is only on participating amazons.
“Harlan. You better get going love, or you’re gonna be late!” Alison yells from downstairs. He takes a deep breath, attempting to tamp down the nervousness that has begun to bubble in his gut. He never thought he could do this without Luka. Here he is though, having to go through something this new and scary without his best friend.
Josie said she talked to him last week and thought she had made a breakthrough, but she didn’t say how. Harlan has decided that if Luka doesn’t agree to see him in the upcoming days, then he will have to sneak up to his room. His patience is running thin. He has to see him. He just needs to talk to him. He thinks that maybe if Luka is forced to see him, it will help. Being so close, yet so far away from him, makes Harlan sick. He feels like his heart is pulling toward Luka, but it can’t reach him. He feels incomplete.
With one final look in the mirror, Harlan leaves his room and heads down the hallway. He shoves his hands in his pockets to stop them from shaking as he walks toward the kitchen.
“There you are!” Paul exclaims as soon as Harlan steps foot into the kitchen. Harlan returns his smile, going to the counter to grab a banana for breakfast. Then he hops up on the counter, looking at the table where his mom and Paul are sitting.
“Yup. Bright and early,” Harlan jokes, peeling the banana while looking at his parents. They both decided to take the day off work, wanting to support Harlan on his first day of college as if it was his first day of kindergarten. Harlan rolled his eyes at the idea initially, but he ultimately came to the conclusion that they just wanted the day to themselves and used Harlan as an excuse. He can’t blame them. He has been home most of the summer, his mental state not really stable enough to be left alone. Since Asher came, they have had even less time alone. Today though, they will be child-free for the first time in months.
“It’s not that early,” Alison responds, with a knowing smile.
“Tomorrow’s gonna be worse,” Paul adds.
“Ugh… I’m not ready for 8 am again,” Harlan moans, absolutely dreading it.
“It’s only two days a week,” Paul laughs.
“So… are you nervous?” Alison asks right as Harlan takes his first bite of banana.
“Sort of. I’m also pretty excited. Psychology is my first class today, and I think I’ll find it really interesting. Calc is gonna be a bitch, though,” Harlan answers, around a mouth full of fruit.
“You can handle it. We have faith in you,” she responds with a wide smile, and Harlan rolls his eyes at the word ‘faith’. She just takes a sip of her coffee in a weak attempt to conceal a smile. She’s probably on her second cup.
They usually wake up early to see Asher off before they both have to leave for work. Alison will sometimes even make him something to eat. At first, Harlan was a bit jealous because he never got that treatment from her during high school, but then he remembers he is trying to let go of the past. What’s done is done, and Asher shouldn’t suffer because of it. Neither should Harlan anymore.
“Oh and Asher says ‘good luck’,” Alison tells him, breaking Harlan from the memory.
“Yeah. He texted me.”
“I’m so glad he seems to be doing okay, all things considered. I was worried he’d struggle,” Alison says, face settling into a frown.
“I’m just glad he hasn’t gotten into a fight. There are a lot of homophobic assholes in this town,” Harlan responds. Asher doesn’t seem the type to fight, though, but it’s hard to know how he’ll react in social settings. He has a lot of anger about a lot of things. Rightfully so.
“Me too. I guess there’s still time, but he’s got Will and Tabby. I don’t know them as well as you, but they seem to be good girls,” Paul says, taking a drink of his coffee in thought.
“They are. I think they are a good influence on him already. He even got an A on his first English essay,” Alison gestures to the paper on the fridge, held there with a magnet that says ‘God Hates Facts’ in big bold letters.
“Did you know he tried to hide it from me?” Harlan asks, watching his mom and Paul shake their heads in response. “Yeah. I saw it sticking out of his backpack. I grabbed it then hung it on the fridge.”
“Good. He should be proud of it. Hopefully, we can hang some of your college papers alongside it,” Paul says, smiling wide. Harlan rolls his eyes and shakes his head, but can’t stop the smile tugging on his lips.
“Do you want some coffee before you leave?” Alison asks, standing up and taking her cup to the sink. Harlan watches her go. It strikes him as odd. How different this scenario is compared to his first day of school last year. How far they have come as a family. How far he has come as a person and accepting himself.
He still has days where he hates himself and everything feels hopeless. He still has issues sleeping and nightmares, mostly about Luka. He still has moments of weakness where he wants nothing more than a bottle of whiskey and a knife, but he is doing better. He even got a new tattoo to symbolize that. He still wears his bracelets, but he thinks he may get to a place in his life one day where he can take them off, own his scars. Like Luka told him to do.
At the thought of Luka, a pang of sadness shoots through his chest. It feels wrong to go to college without him. It had also felt wrong to spend the summer without him. He hasn’t seen him in three months. At one point, he didn’t think he could go a week without him, and it’s been three months. Harlan isn’t sure if that’s a bad thing or a good thing.
He has come to realize that he can live without Luka if he has to, he just doesn’t want to. Doesn’t see why he should have to, and he needs to break down whatever barrier is keeping Luka from him. He just needs to talk to him. Harlan has broken down Luka’s faith in a higher being before. At least he thinks he has, and he certainly should be able to do it again.
“Nah. Me and Cade are gonna stop at Starbucks. Says we need to be proper college students. I don’t even think he knows what that means. Where he heard the term ‘proper’ is beyond me, and I’m not sure why Starbucks makes us proper. He’s paying, so it’s whatever,” Harlan responds with a shrug, finishing his banana and kicking his feet so they knock against the bottom cabinets. He tosses the peel into the trash, somehow making it. Luka would have cheered, and knowing that just makes Harlan feel hollow.
“Tell him he needs to stop watching Doctor Who,” Paul jokes, smiling at Harlan. Harlan laughs because Cadeon has been obsessed with that show all summer, discovering the seasons on Hulu. He had trouble understanding their accents at first, but quickly became addicted.
“You will have to pry that show from his cold dead hands,” Alison laughs, patting Harlan on the leg. Harlan places both hands on the counter, pushing himself off until his feet land on the floor. He nods in response to his mom, smiling at her as well.
“I better get going. I don’t wanna be late for my first class,” Harlan says, looking down at his phone and seeing a text from Cadeon asking where he is. They are going to take turns driving to campus, and today is Harlan’s turn. They don’t have all the same classes, but similar enough schedules to make it work. He feels better that, at least, Cadeon and Ezra are with him. Ezra isn’t carpooling with them because he has to go to football practice after class, but they have two classes with him as well.
“I’m sure you won’t be the only one that is late, but it probably won’t make the best impression on your first day,” Paul points out with a smile. They both wish him good luck, and Harlan nods in response, thanking them as he grabs his keys and heads out the door. He sends Cadeon a quick text saying that he is on his way.
The drive to Cadeon’s house is quick, and before Harlan knows it, he is being greeted by a wide braceless smile. Cadeon got his braces removed last week and hasn’t stopped smiling since. The braces never stopped him to begin with, but he is definitely more confident. Harlan loves that for him. Loves seeing his shiny, straight teeth. Harlan returns his greeting, his own smile not reaching his eyes.
“So how’s Asher?” Cadeon asks once Harlan backs out of the driveway, heading in the direction of the interstate. He can still hear Luka’s raspy voice in his head, giving him driving instructions. Harlan shakes it, trying to dislodge the memory. It still hurts too much.
Everything he does reminds him of Luka, and some days are easier than others. Some days he wants to hang on to it, but other days he hates it. He really needs to come up with a plan to make Luka see him. Maybe Josie will help him. She has been adamant not to push him too hard, and Harlan understands that. At the same time, though, he also knows sometimes people need a good push. He definitely needed one himself.
“He’s good I think. Mom, Paul, and I were just talking about it. He seems to be adjusting well, all things considered,” Harlan answers, glancing over at his friend before his eyes are back on the road.
“That’s good. I know it was rough for him those first couple of weeks after he got to your house,” Cadeon responds.
“Yeah, but he seems a lot happier. He even had Gage over last weekend.”
“I can’t believe I haven’t met him yet. I’m such a terrible friend,” Cadeon says, disappointment lingering in his voice. Harlan can’t help but smile. Cadeon loves everyone, so he’s sure that he and Gage will get along just fine. Cadeon has this way of bringing everyone out of their shells, and Gage definitely could use a bit of that.
“We should all try to hang out like next weekend or something. Maybe invite Will and T,” Harlan suggests, checking his mirrors as he merges onto the highway, just like Luka taught him.
“That’d be awesome. I’m sure Ezra would be tickled pink to hang out too,” Cadeon says, but Harlan can tell there is something he wants to add. He looks hesitant, which indicates that it is about Luka. Everyone has been avoiding talking to Harlan about Luka except Asher, but that is mostly because Asher isn’t aware of Harlan’s history. “What do you think happened to Lu? Like in the camp?”
Harlan sighs, his eyes prickling with tears as soon as the question falls from Cadeon’s lips. He knew it was coming, but it still hurts him to even think about it. His body physically hurts for Luka, knowing that he went through something so horrible, even though he doesn’t have all the details. He feels sick even thinking about it, but it only solidifies his need to help Luka through it. He swallows, taking a deep breath before he answers, “I don’t know, Cade. I know it’s bad though, so of course, my brain is coming up with all kinds of horrible scenarios.”
“How do you know it was bad?” Cadeon questions, blue eyes studying Harlan’s face, probably gauging his reaction. Harlan grips the steering wheel, his knuckles white with tension. He keeps his eyes trained on the road, willing himself not to cry or think about what could have happened to Luka.
He only tortured himself when he looked up information about those types of places, but his curiosity got the better of him. Not all of them are abusive, but most are, especially the ones run by so-called ‘Religious Leaders’. It shocked him that some are even staffed with actual clinical psychologists. Goes to show that education isn’t everything.
“I just do. I can feel it. I know that sounds stupid, but I just know it was bad. Asher refuses to talk about it with me, but he still wakes up in the middle of the night, Cadeon. Crying and screaming for some unknown person to stop. He sometimes mumbles that he didn’t mean it, and I have no idea what he is referring to,” Harlan says, his voice cracking. He bites his lip in a weak attempt to keep his tears at bay. Luka probably does the same things at night and Harlan isn’t there to hold him. To tell him everything is okay.
“Oh… I didn’t realize it was that bad,” Cadeon says, brows creasing in concern.
“Whatever they did to him, it fucked him up. Luka was there for two more weeks after that. Two weeks of punishment for trying to escape. Two weeks of shit that Asher doesn’t even know about. Ash is in therapy now, but Josie said Luka refuses to go. It was bad,” Harlan tells him, a tear finally trailing down his cheek.
“Fuck,” Cadeon responds, and Harlan seconds that. Fuck indeed.
After that, Cadeon changes the subject, sensing Harlan’s distress. They talk about their classes and majors. Cadeon is still undecided because he doesn’t really know what he wants to do after college. Harlan is sure he will find something, though. Cadeon has always been a bit of a gypsy soul, good at everything, but never really applying himself to any one thing. Harlan could see him being a nurse or something. Someone that works with people and helps them, but he is giving Cadeon time to find himself. That is a part of the whole college experience, Harlan has been told.
They continue chatting as Harlan takes the exit, heading to Starbucks first. They go through the drive-thru, which isn’t much quicker, but at least they didn’t have to leave the vehicle. Harlan hands Cadeon his frappe and looks at the time, wincing because they are definitely going to be late for their first class.
Harlan quickly finds a parking space, and with their coffee in hand, they make their way to their destination. They came to the campus over the weekend to find the rooms their classes were located in, Harlan needing to feel prepared, to alleviate his anxiety over the situation. Cadeon and Ezra were cool about it, seeing the advantage of knowing where they needed to go.
“I can’t believe we’re late,” Harlan murmurs to Cadeon as they walk through the door of their classroom. Thankfully, the teacher doesn’t seem to have started the lecture, yet. He glances around the room, looking for Ezra, and freezes when he finds Ezra sat beside a person Harlan wasn’t sure he would ever see again. He almost collapses to the floor, wanting to sob with relief.
Maybe he’s hallucinating or perhaps he and Cadeon got into a car accident, and he is dead, somehow finding his way into Heaven. This is real, though. Heaven isn’t. Harlan takes a deep breath, bringing a shaking hand up to scrub at his face, trying to keep a steady hold on his coffee in the process. All he needs on his first day is to drop his coffee all over the lecture hall and make a fool of himself, but holy shit.
It’s Luka. Luka is sitting beside Ezra. Harlan had hoped that the person he saw in the hallway at Josie’s was just a figment of his overworked imagination, but it wasn’t. Luka looks thin, almost frail, and his blue eyes are empty, with none of their normal sparkle or mirth. Harlan’s breath leaves him because this is Luka, but it doesn’t look like him. He isn’t smiling. He isn’t being loud or vibrant. He isn’t making any quips about Ezra’s stupid fucking flat-billed hat. He is just sitting there, staring straight ahead.
He is still the most beautiful creature that Harlan has ever laid eyes on. He still has all of the features Harlan loves, and he knows that, deep down inside, it is still Luka. His Luka. His light is just so dim, and Harlan can’t help but worry that it will never shine again. They took his fucking light. How could they? How could they dim something so fucking bright, Harlan used it as his godsdamned sun?
Luka hasn’t seen him yet, and Harlan isn’t sure if that is bad or good. Ezra is trying to communicate something to them with his eyes, but Harlan doesn’t know what. Harlan forces his feet to move when he feels Cadeon nudge his shoulder breaking him out of his trance, glancing over to Luka. Harlan swallows, feeling somewhat numb. He is just having trouble processing this. It’s a total shock. He hasn’t seen Luka in so fucking long, he almost forgot the little details about him.
He still feels like he isn’t seeing him though; he is just so different. Almost like this shell of the person Harlan remembers. Harlan makes a promise to himself, right then and there, that he will help Luka find his light. Luka was Harlan’s light, and Harlan will see him shine again even if he has to use his own fucking heart as a damaged wick. It is then that Luka’s blue eyes find him, going wide and almost… scared. Harlan is definitely going to cry.
Luka groans when his alarm goes off for the third time. He grabs his phone, silencing it. He wants nothing more than to roll over and go back to sleep, or at the very least, try to sleep. He didn’t sleep very much last night. Well, he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in what feels like forever.
He still has horrible dreams about the camp that causes him to wake up screaming and fighting restraints that aren’t there, which brings back the guilt of fighting against them in the first place when they were just trying to help him. He usually ends up crying, begging God to take away his confusion. He never does. He is still punishing Luka it seems, and Luka falls into a fitful sleep again, somewhere around dawn, only for the occurrence to be repeated in the same order. It’s a vicious, endless cycle.
Luka scrubs at his face in a weak attempt to rub the confusion and exhaustion away. It doesn’t work. It never works. Nothing works. Not crying. Not sleeping. Not even praying. He glances at his clock, groaning at the time. He needs to actually drag his ass out of bed if he is going to do this. He isn’t sure he wants to, not really, but his mom is right. He can’t keep wallowing in his own misery, never seeing the light of day again.
It’s funny, in some sick way, that he went from forced isolation to self-imposed isolation. He can’t keep drowning in the chaos of his mind, the waves now so turbulent, he is beginning to feel not only lost but seasick. Aren’t sailors supposed to have a compass for their ship or something? Luka needs one because he has no idea where he is most days, but he thinks he is heading south.
He hasn’t worn actual clothes in months, so, with just the sunlight filtering through the window of the room, he makes his way to his closet. He doesn’t even bother to look at his choices, just reaches in and grabs the first thing his fingers grasp. He pulls a white shirt with small black designs out of the closet and pairs it with some basic jeans.
He stumbles into the bathroom, squinting when he flips the overhead light on, illuminating the space in a harsh glow, making pain shoot behind his eyes. He avoids looking in the mirror as he brushes his teeth, but makes the mistake of finding his reflection after he rinses his mouth.
He doesn’t think he has actually seen his own reflection since the exercise at camp where he had to tell himself that he is, in fact, straight. He has avoided it at all costs, not wanting to put a face to the person he is because he doesn’t really know himself anymore. He looks just as disjointed as his thoughts are. The face staring back at him from the mirror has his features, but he doesn’t recognize them. It’s like a stranger with his facial characteristics, but missing a few key details.
The light in his eyes, along with the crinkles beside them that his smile caused, are gone now. All of that has been replaced by eyes that are red-rimmed and hollow, a black ring around them from lack of sleep. His skin is pale and gaunt, lacking any of the natural sunkissed hue that he would normally have in the summer from hours of being outside. His cheeks are covered with three-day-old scruff that he was always so meticulous about shaving. He scrubs it with his hand, wincing at the noise that almost sounds too loud for his ears. He looks away, not being able to take another second of the scrutiny.
He quickly leaves the bathroom, finding a gray beanie to pull over his greasy hair, leaving some of it out to cover his empty eyes. He makes his way over to his bedside stand, grabbing his newly replaced phone and wallet, which feels heavy with the weight of the letter he knows is inside.
He hasn’t touched it since his mom put it in there last week. Hasn’t even looked at the damn thing, afraid that if he even so much as tries to move it, he will take a peek at its contents, which is something he simply cannot allow himself to do. His mom insisted that he get a new phone, even though he didn’t want it. The number is different. It was the only way he would agree to the purchase. He doesn’t want anyone from his old life contacting him, except maybe Ezra.
He doesn’t know how he feels about the fact that he could possibly see Ezra or Cadeon today. He thought he may have seen Ezra at church by now, but neither he nor his family have attended for the last month. The school is fairly small, so it wouldn’t be a surprise for Ezra or Cadeon to be in one or two of his classes. Luka was placed in pre-med courses because he had intended to become a doctor before all of this happened.
He told his mom and his new advisor during a phone call, that he didn’t give a fuck what they registered him for, but his mom insisted that he needed to try to stick with what was as normal as possible. Therefore Luka was enrolled in Psychology, English, Chemistry, and Biology. He figured it would be challenging enough to throw himself into, and possibly get lost in the work. Distractions are important, it seems.
He makes his way downstairs, thankful that his sisters have already left for school. He finds a note on the refrigerator from his mom saying ‘Good luck. I love you <3’. She already told him that she would have to work on his first day of college, as being new to the position as an administrative assistant at a law firm, she couldn’t get the day off.
The hours are great for the girls, though, and she seems happier making her own money, not depending so much on the money she gets from government support. Luka is secretly thankful that she isn’t here to see him off, not wanting to see her sympathetic smile or tearful frown. He can’t take it. He feels like he is disappointing her, but he doesn’t know why. He is trying to be a good person and a good Christian. What else could she want?
She is honestly happier than she’s been in years, not having the weight of Matt and his harsh rules and criticisms crushing her. Luka wants to be happy for her, but he can’t. She went against the Bible by divorcing Matt, and he cannot condone that.
She did it because of Luka, and now he blames himself for the fact that his mom is going to Hell because of him. Luka also somewhat blames Harlan because he is the reason Luka was sent to the camp to begin with. He knows Harlan didn’t force him to do any of those things; he didn’t force him to fall in love. Now, however, Luka’s mom is going to Hell because of his mistakes.
He knows Matt never treated her the way she deserved to be treated. She lived in fear of Matt, and he wanted nothing more than to ‘keep her in her place’. He did all of this because of the Bible. No one deserves to be treated like that, but there are no exceptions in the Bible. There are no ‘divorce is a sin unless the following occurs’ clauses within its pages.
Luka shakes his head, pushing the questions about the morals of the Bible out of his mind, hopefully once and for all. He tries not to recall the conversations he had with Harlan about that topic. He tries not to question it. He just needs to believe.
He doesn’t bother with breakfast, his stomach churning at the mere thought of food. He just wants to go to his classes and come back home to crawl into bed. Maybe not go to sleep, but things are less confusing in his bed. He takes a deep breath, trying to calm his racing heart, then leaves the house to go somewhere other than church for the first time in over a month.
The August sun is brighter than Luka remembers, the humidity licking at his skin despite the fact that it is only mid-morning. He squints against the light, the pain behind his eyes intensifying with the brightness of it. His senses feel overwhelmed, confused by the onslaught of sights and sounds that he isn’t accustomed to anymore.
He almost turns around and runs back into the house, where the noises don’t make him feel like they are muffling his internal screams, but he takes another deep breath, forcing his feet to move to his car. He gets in quickly, shuts the door firmly, and closes his eyes when the silence returns to him like an old friend.
He places his head on the steering wheel, gripping it with shaking hands, and counts to ten, telling himself that he needs to do this. He needs to at least try to feel normal again, and this is the first step. Once he has calmed down a bit, he turns the ignition. He hasn’t driven in so long, he fears that he has forgotten how, but it seems like driving is a lot like riding a bike. You never really forget once you learn.
He doesn’t turn on the radio, just allows the silence that he is comfortable with to take over, his mind racing with what to expect, anxiety thrumming through his system. The closer he gets to the school, the more he feels as though he is going to jump out of his fucking skin.
He needs something. Something to take the stress away. Something to calm his nerves and fill him up, at least a little bit. He sees a gas station off of the next exit and makes a beeline for it, going in and returning with a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He doesn’t know why he suddenly wanted them, although he has heard they are a great way to relieve stress, and he is willing to try just about anything at this point.
When he gets back into the car, he opens the pack with trembling fingers, thanking God that the person behind the counter didn’t want to talk any more than Luka did. He chose a green pack because he didn’t know what the fuck to go with, and he likes green. He holds it between his fingers, looking at it as though the object may hold the answers to all of his questions, a solution to all of his problems. It doesn’t, but he sticks the filter between his lips and lights it up.
The first drag burns his throat but not as much as the first time he smoked weed with Harlan. He pushes that memory out the window of his mind, hoping it will splatter on the pavement below, as he takes another drag. This time it is much smoother, and he only coughs twice. He silently promises himself that he won’t make a habit of this. He just needs it to take the edge off.
The smoke has a menthol taste to it that opens his sinuses. He feels better for some reason, just having something to do, so he keeps the cigarette between two fingers as he maneuvers the vehicle out of the parking lot. He no longer feels like he is going to jump out of his skin or throw up the only thing currently occupying his stomach.
The smoke continues to fill his lungs on the way to campus but does nothing for the void in his heart. He quickly finds a parking spot, surprised to see that he is actually early for class. He has no idea where he is going, but the campus is small. He has a map and the buildings are labeled, so he has no issues finding the correct classroom for Psychology 101. With the newly acquired pack of cigarettes firmly in his pocket and a single notebook in his hand, he opens the door.
He tries to breathe through the anxiety climbing into his throat as he walks into the classroom. It seats about 50 people, so much bigger than anything he is used to. There are only a handful of students present thus far, all looking wide-eyed and eager. Luka wonders how many of them are in their first-ever college class, too.
Luka avoids any eye contact and makes his way toward the back of the room. He doesn’t sit in the back row, but one down from the back. He picks a seat near the end of the row, next to the aisle, in case he needs to make a quick getaway. He doesn’t like feeling trapped, not after everything that’s happened. He jogs his leg, jumping almost every single time the door opens. Everything just seems so loud, and he really wants another cigarette.
When the door opens for the seventeenth time, Luka doesn’t jump, just keeps staring straight ahead, lost in his own mind where he allowed the self-doubt to creep back in. What the fuck is he doing here? Why would he even attempt this? Does God want him here? Luka has prayed about it but doesn’t feel like he received an answer. There was no divine voice in his head telling him what to do, just complete silence sliced through by rampant chaos.
He taps his finger on the desk, debating for the one hundred and sixty-seventh time about whether or not he should just get up and leave. No one is going to miss him here. No one is going to notice his absence. He made a promise to his mom, though. He told her he would try, and he finally makes the decision to stay, based on that fact alone. He has to start somewhere, and it’s not like Harlan will be here to tempt him. He can’t avoid the real world forever, and this may just be a test of his faith. Maybe God does want him here.
“Is this seat taken?” Luka’s head snaps up at the sound of the familiar voice, his heartbeat picking up to the point that it doesn’t feel like it’s beating at all, just one long continuous buzz in his head. Ezra’s brown eyes are staring down at him, kind and warm. Luka could say ‘yes’, and he is almost positive Ezra would go find another seat, however, Luka finds himself shaking his head.
He watches Ezra as he sits down in the seat next to the aisle, trying not to hyperventilate at the fact that he is now somewhat trapped. It’s just Ezra, though. Ezra would move if he asked, so he tries to relax. Tries to concentrate on Ezra’s genuine smile, and the words that are filtering through his lips.
“I didn’t know you changed your mind, and it’s so cool that we are in the same class,” Ezra says, his voice sounding much too chipper. Luka wonders if Ezra knows what happened. He isn’t asking questions about Luka’s disappearance thankfully, but that fact in and of itself brings Luka to the conclusion that Ezra has to know something. His mom probably told him. She had been trying to get Luka to call Ezra for the last week, but Luka always refused. He just doesn’t want to deal with the questions, even though Ezra isn’t currently asking any.
“Yeah. I just decided last week,” Luka responds, his voice sounding foreign, even to himself. He clears his throat, but he knows it won’t do any good. He just can’t seem to put his normal tone into it. It just sounds like an echo to his ears, not the real thing but close enough for most people not to notice. Ezra tries to cover a wince, so apparently, he noticed.
He takes in Ezra’s appearance. He looks good, healthy like he has been working out a lot. He is wearing a black t-shirt and jeans with a flat-billed hat. Luka can’t find it in him to give him shit for it, even though he most definitely looks like a stereotypical frat boy. He just doesn’t want to. He doesn’t feel like it, and that kind of scares him.
“Are you joining the football team? I know it’s late since we’ve already started practice, but the coach was scouting you last season. I’m sure he would make an exception for the best freshman running back in the state,” Ezra says, excitement lacing his tone. Luka winces at the mention of football.
He doesn’t want anything to do with his old life. He doesn’t want any reminders, and there is far too much about football that reminds him of Harlan. Pictures of Harlan wearing his jersey filter through Luka’s mind at a rapid pace, his lips painted black. Luka can feel his dick twitch, so he pinches his arm, reminding himself of the pain he felt during aversion therapy. He needs to associate Harlan with pain.
“No. I don’t think I will,” is all Luka says, allowing an awkward silence to fall over them. Ignoring Ezra’s small ‘oh’ in response, he stares directly ahead, praying that he can keep it together. He keeps telling himself that he just has this class and one more, then he can go home.
He can make it to his bed where he can curl up and cry again. Where he can pretend there is no temptation, and God will do as he has been begging and heal him. Everything just seems so difficult now, so fucking confusing that Luka is left with his head spinning after only a few minutes. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he hears the door to the classroom open. He hopes it’s time for classes to start because he just wants to get this over with.
When he feels Ezra tense beside him, he looks up to find green eyes on him. Green eyes outlined in black, of course, because Luka can’t have nice, virtuous things. Three things happen, all simultaneously: his limbs freeze, his stomach drops to the pits of Hell, and his heart feels like it is going to flutter out of his chest and float to the person it’s not allowed near.
Fuck. No. This can’t be happening. Luka’s limbs begin to shake as he takes in Harlan’s appearance. Luka has never understood the saying ‘a sight for sore eyes’ until this very fucking moment because he wants to cry just from seeing Harlan while he should want to run away screaming.
He thought Harlan would look different. Maybe his skin would be red with flames licking around him. It is ridiculous, but that is the only way Luka has allowed himself to picture Harlan in his mind, as the person that Satan uses to tempt him, but no. Harlan isn’t different. He is the same boy that Luka remembers, that Luka loves, with the exception of a few key differences.
His hair has gotten much longer, the dark curls almost touching his shoulders. His bracelets are new, not the same ones Luka has seen him in countless times, but Luka doesn’t allow himself to wonder why. Lastly, Luka spots a new tattoo on the inner part of Harlan’s left bicep, near his elbow. The words ‘You Booze, You Lose’ are etched into his pale skin with harsh, sharp letters, almost like cuts. A bottle with a skull and crossbones on the label breaks up the two phrases.
Luka tells himself he doesn’t want to know what inspired the new tattoo. He tells himself that he doesn’t find the damn thing incredibly sexy. That he doesn’t have the indescribable urge to run a pointed tongue over each jagged letter. Luka shakes his head, feeling the panic rise in his chest. He tears his eyes away from Harlan as he grabs his phone, frantically texting his mom, begging her to change his schedule.
He gets a quick response telling him that there are no other Psychology courses available, and if he doesn’t take it, he will be behind in his major. He almost doesn’t care. He can’t do this. He should never have agreed to this in the first place. If he’d just stayed home where he is supposed to be, locked away from the world and its cruel temptations, none of this would be happening now.
He stiffens when he feels someone sit down behind him, the iced coffee in his hand creating a deafening noise when it rattles against the plastic sides of the cup, making Luka flinch. Shit. Shit. Shit. He takes a deep breath, thinking about climbing over Ezra and bolting. Why would God do this to him? Why would he put them in the same fucking class? Is this a test?
It has to be a test. God is testing Luka, putting his apple in front of him. Luka can’t leave the class, though, can’t run back home to his room where he is safe from God’s trials. No. He has to show God that he is serious about this. That he is willing to put in the work and show that he deserves God’s healing hands. He can do this. He needs to do this.
“Well slap some butter on my ass and call me a biscuit. What are you doing here, Lu?” Cadeon’s voice breaks Luka out of his thoughts, and Luka can’t stop the laughter that bubbles out of his chest from escaping out into the room. He isn’t sure what to do because he hasn’t heard his own laughter in so long, he doesn’t even recognize it. He doesn’t remember it, but it happened. Cadeon caught him so off guard with his comment, Luka fucking laughed. He almost feels bad for it, as if he doesn’t deserve the feeling laughter gives, but it happened.
Luka is saved from answering because the professor chooses that exact moment to start the class, going through the syllabus. Luka pretends to pay attention, but he can feel Harlan’s presence behind him. It makes him warm and his stomach flutter. The damn thing somehow made its way back from the pits of Hell just to torture him with fucking fluttering.
He hasn’t looked at him again though, keeping his eyes straight ahead, trained on the screen displaying the course outline. He nods, pretending to be overly interested in the attendance policy, and tries to keep his breathing even, reminding himself that he isn’t trapped, that his hands aren’t tied down. He can still feel Harlan’s eyes on him, and he isn’t sure if that makes him feel better or worse. He tells himself that it’s worse.
“Okay. I want you all to break up into groups of four, the people you are sitting with are fine. Tell the others a bit about yourself, and then you will introduce a member of your group to the class. You have ten minutes,” the professor says, and Luka really should remember her name. She’s young, probably a graduate student. She seems nice so far, even if she is making Luka talk to people he used to call his friends.
He feels a tap on his shoulder and flinches, looking back to find Harlan staring at him with an expression on his beautiful face Luka can’t quite read. It reminds him of all those months ago when he couldn’t read Harlan to save his life, the reason he began speaking to him, to begin with.
A tension has fallen over their group now, suffocating him. The noise of their other classmates chatting is drowned out by the blood rushing to Luka’s ears. His eyes keep going to the drop of coffee that has found its home on Harlan’s full bottom lip. Luka has never in his life been so jealous of a fucking liquid substance, and he has the ever-present urge to lick it off. Fuck.
He has to look away from Harlan. He has to because he kind of wants to kiss him but he isn’t allowed to. He needs to prove to God that he can do this, so he looks at Ezra, his stupid flat-billed hat a terrible distraction from Harlan. Luka jumps when a loud laugh comes from the group beside him, grating on his nerves. The rest of the group looks startled by the outburst, their heads snapping in the direction the noise came from.
“Jesus… no reason cuttin’ a shine like that,” Cadeon says shaking his head, and what the fuck does ‘cuttin’ a shine’ mean. Is shine something you can cut? Luka thought it was something that lights do, he didn’t know it could be a physical object.
Apparently, you can cut it though, or at least Cadeon thinks you can. Luka can’t even begin to fathom what the fuck Cadeon is trying to say, so, without thinking, he looks to Harlan for a translation. Thank God that sinful drop of liquid is no longer on his lips, but Luka almost pouts at the fact that he didn’t get to witness Harlan’s pink tongue dart out to lick it away.
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