The Darkroom Ch. 03byCC_Ryder©
The parking lot was flooded with a hazy artificial orange from the buzzing streetlights when Jeremy burst through the side doors of Wilson Hall. He haphazardly pulled on his pants and Bryan's shirt then took off running. He didn't want to go back to his room yet, not while the tears were still hot on his face. So he ran, barefoot, in the opposite direction of home.
The campus was essentially deserted on a late spring Saturday night, so there was no one to see the disheveled, half-dressed young man running across the central lawn, toward nothing but the darkness. He didn't feel the stones and branches cutting into his feet, didn't feel the chill, barely saw enough through his tears to avoid falling.
He was furious with Bryan for putting him in that position, furious with Carson for the hateful things he said, but most of all furious with himself, and it was the kind of helpless fury that ate away at him from the inside.
This is what I was afraid of, he thought bitterly. What I have always been afraid of.
He knew better. He had always known he needed to be careful, to make deliberate moves, not these impulsive behaviors that Bryan pushed him into.
That's not fair, Franken, his rational side told him. He doesn't push you anywhere you don't want to go. You're just mad that you got caught.
Stupid rational side.
He slumped to the ground under one of the oldest trees on campus, out on the edge of the property near the library. The streetlights didn't reach out far enough to hit him, so he let himself rest in the darkness, the damp earth beneath him.
Even with his blood pounding in his ears and his lungs heaving from his sprint across campus, nothing could distract Jeremy from the image of the girls and that Carson staring at him. Any time he was called on to speak in public or even in a small study group, he usually felt really exposed; this time it was more than a metaphor.
As the adrenaline began to recede, Jeremy became aware of the state of his bare feet. He had suffered a number of small cuts -- nothing serious but everything annoying. Now he needed to walk the length of the campus on these tender soles.
He thought about calling Stephan and asking for a rescue, but his phone wasn't in his pocket. It must have fallen out in the basement, he figured. Then he realized that he'd left everything else behind in his rush out the door -- he'd have to go back sometime to retrieve his camera and backpack.
He couldn't bear the idea of returning to that basement, to those stares and giggles. And the one thing he'd always hidden behind -- his camera -- was trapped down there.
God, how am I going to face Bryan again? Or any of them?
But when he got back to his dorm room, he saw his missing bags sitting in front of his door, and his cell phone was tucked into one of the pockets. On the dry erase board on the door, there was a new note: "We need to talk. Please. B."
His heart shimmied; he was grateful to Bryan for taking care of his things, but he was also glad he didn't have to deal with him in person tonight. He didn't know how long he had been gone or how long Bryan might have waited for him. He checked his phone -- it was past two in the morning. And there were two missed calls showing on the screen.
The room was dark and empty. Stephan must be staying with Lauren again this weekend. Another bullet dodged; he didn't want to explain himself or even be around another human. He gratefully stepped under a hot shower in the empty communal bathroom and let the spray wash away his exertions and lull him closer to a much-needed sleep.
Jeremy spent all day Sunday in the library, away from his room and phone. He figured Bryan was trying to reach him, but he didn't want to be found. The basement dwellers were notorious for adamantly not visiting the library if they could help it, so he knew he'd be safe in the third floor stacks.
Returning to his room, he found Stephan lounging on his bed, trying to hide the worried look on his face.
"Your boy has been calling," he said. "A lot. Didn't sound that great."
Jeremy didn't meet his eyes as he put his books away. "Sorry if he's been bugging you."
"He tried your cell, but that rang here, too. Since when do you leave your phone behind?"
"Forgot it," Jeremy muttered.
"I would have told him where you were," Stephan continued, "but you didn't leave a note. Which you usually do. Hell, you leave me a note to tell me you're going to the bathroom."
Jeremy rolled his eyes. "No I don't."
"No, you don't," Stephan conceded. He moved to stand in front of Jeremy. "Wanna talk about it?"
"No, I don't," Jeremy repeated.
Stephan nodded. "Got it. Well, if you ever do, let me know. Breakups can be a bitch, trust me, I know."
Jeremy's heart dropped. Breakup? Is that what he had done? Were they broken up? God, he didn't want to think about that right now. All he knew was he didn't want to talk to Bryan. Yet.
"If he calls again, I'm still out, okay?"
Stephan patted him once on the back. "Sure thing, buddy."
Jeremy's cell phone vibrated four times that evening. He knew he shouldn't be this way, but he couldn't help blaming Bryan for this pain -- a physical, wearying ache -- that he was suffering.
He didn't remember the negatives until halfway through his Advanced Algebra class on Monday. He had to cover his gasp with a coughing fit. That would just be the icing, wouldn't it, he thought. He dashed over to the darkroom right after class to retrieve them.
Again using his back stairs entrance, Jeremy was relieved but not surprised to find the room empty. Unfortunately, so was the drying closet where his negatives should have been hanging.
His helpless frustration nearly choked him. He tried so hard to be careful, to keep everything he could under control, and now it seemed to be unraveling, one maddening piece at a time. Jeremy angrily kicked the battered metal closet just to hear it clang.
"Watch it, freshman. I will make sure you replace anything you break." Carson, of all damn people in the world, was suddenly standing behind him.
Jeremy spun around, his breath coming hot and feverish out of his mouth. "You gonna tattle on me, Carson? Dust the cabinet for footprints?"
"I'm pretty sure you've left more evidence down here than footprints."
Jeremy started. Did Carson get ahold of the negatives? Is that what he meant?
Carson looked at the floor and grimaced. "I don't even want to think of the fluids that CSI would find down here."
"What are you doing here, anyway?" Jeremy ground out.
"I was coming out of the bathroom and saw you sneaking around the corner. Were you hiding something in here, Franken?
"That's not really your business, Carson," Jeremy muttered.
"Oh, it's completely my business," he replied. "Pretty soon, everything down here will be my business."
"Did they make you dean of the J school or something?"
"Ivy interviews are on Friday," Carson huffed. "And after Bryan's little stunt down here, there's no way they're going to make him editor. Thanks to you."
Jeremy felt his face burn with fury, with helplessness and with the truth of that last part. If Bryan lost out on editor, it would be partially his fault. He felt guilt begin to overtake his blaming of Bryan.
"I suppose I should thank you for that," Carson continued. "Your timing was perfect. If he'd pulled this crap with one of his boy toys earlier in the year, he probably could have gotten around it."
That was enough. Jeremy didn't want to listen to another nasally word. He grabbed his backpack and moved toward the door.
"I hope it was worth it, kid. Nobody is ever going to take you seriously down here again."
That stopped Jeremy in his tracks. Tears stung at his eyes, but he fought them back. He would not cry in front of this jackass.
"When I'm editor -- and believe me, that's pretty much in the bag -- we're going to have standards on the Ivy," Carson announced. "I only want to work with the best. And you've shown that you are willing to fuck away your career just for the thrill of it."
Jeremy was choking on all the words he wanted to throw at him, but none of them made it past his closed throat.
"And for what?" Carson scoffed. "For Bryan Ross? I'd generously call him a ladies' man, but we both know that's not his style."
"You don't know what the fuck you're talking about," Jeremy replied shakily over his shoulder. He refused to turn around.
"I've been around a hell of a lot longer than you, freshman," Carson snarled. "Everyone knows Bryan plays the field. You're not the first, and I doubt very much you'll be the last. You're probably just the most convenient."
Jeremy flinched. He wanted to tell him that he was wrong, that Bryan wasn't that way with him. But the reality of their relationship censored his words. They'd only been together about a month, and he didn't really know anything of what Bryan was like before they met.
He had to say something. "It's not like that." Not for me, anyway.
"God, you can't even face me when you say that. You fags are all alike," Carson sneered. "You'll fuck whatever moves, won't you? God knows Bryan has."
If he stayed any longer, Jeremy was going to break this guy's nose. And you just know he'd sue me or something. Without another word, he slammed open the door and took off.
That disastrous encounter with Carson sunk Jeremy deeper into his funk. He went to class, not hearing a word the professors said, and spent the rest of his time sleeping or moping. He hadn't shot anything since last week -- the longest he'd ever gone without using his camera.
Finally, Stephan had enough.
"OK," he announced, bursting into the room. "It's time to talk, Jeremy. I've been exceptionally patient -- saint-worthy, really. But I want my roommate back."
Jeremy smiled wanly. "Back? I've never been here so much."
"In body. Your soul is long gone. We need to fetch it. Now."
Jeremy ran his hand over his face. "I know I've been a little down, Steph. I'm just trying to work through things."
"And I'm here to help. That requires out-loud words, not all this painful brooding."
Jeremy snorted. "I thought one of the benefits of being guys is that we don't have to talk about our feelings."
"Pretty sure there's a gay exception to that rule," Stephan said, his tongue poking comically into his cheek.
"Fuck you," Jeremy said without venom, flinging a pillow at Stephan's head.
"There we go. He's coming back." Stephan plopped down on the bed, jostling Jeremy's reclining body.
Jeremy just looked at him, wondering if stubborn silence would deter Stephan from his mission.
"Out-loud words, Jer," he said kindly. "It's the only cure."
Jeremy scooted up and leaned against his headboard. "I think I've fucked everything up," he began. Then he told him everything, reliving the mortifying scene in the darkroom, the infuriating meeting with Carson, and every thought that had been torturing his waking hours.
"This probably sounds pathetic, doesn't it? Worrying so much about this shit?" The tears on his face overwhelmed his hand's ability to wipe them away. Stephan tossed him a box of tissues.
"Not pathetic at all," Stephan said. "I can totally see why you're so twisted up about this. It's about your resume, essentially. You're afraid you've sabotaged it. I'd be freaking out, too."
"Oh God," Jeremy wailed and buried his face into his hands. "I thought I was overreacting!"
Stephan winced and repositioned himself on the bed. "No, I didn't mean that. Gaaarrrgh, I'm not good at this." He pulled Jeremy's face up. "Remember, we're in college. We're allowed to fuck up. It's expected. You are, officially, overreacting. I'm just saying I probably would too. Because I can be a little quick to freak out."
Jeremy breathed deeply, shakily, trying to control himself.
"God, I just feel so stupid, crying over this. I know it's not the end of the world, but I wanted to fit in down there. Now all they're going to see is the little fag who got caught fucking in the darkroom. I'll be a joke."
The silence hung between them, as Stephan didn't know what to say that wouldn't make things worse.
"Right." Stephan slapped his legs decidedly. "We need alcohol for the next step."
"We're about two years short of that. I don't need a Minor in Possession on top of everything else, thanks."
"Oh, live a little, roomie!"
"I did." Jeremy gestured toward himself. "Observe where it got me."
"Come on," Stephan implored. "I can get a couple of the older guys in my fraternity to buy for us."
Jeremy shook his head. "I don't think beer is the answer here, Steph."
"Who said anything about beer? Beer is for football and other joyous occasions. This is a cheap wine night."
Jeremy studied him with narrowed eyes. "Wine? Weepy roommates require wine?"
"Trust me, nothing gets you drunker quicker than a couple of bottles of Two Buck Chuck."
"You realize that it's Wednesday," Jeremy said.
"A school night."
"I have class at 9:15 tomorrow."
"This doesn't bother you."
Jeremy sighed, nearly defeated. "We're in deep shit if we get caught with it in the dorm," he warned.
"That's why we're going to Lauren's apartment."
Jeremy rolled his eyes. "Oh Christ. You're going to pass me off to your girlfriend so I don't cry all over your shoulder."
"No!" Stephan squeaked, indignant. "Yes," he immediately relented. "But only because she's a really good listener. My shoulder is still available for crying on. Metaphorical crying, preferably. Cause you're kinda all snot-leaky right now."
Jeremy flung his other pillow at Stephan.
As it turned out, it took fully three bottles of the two dollar wine before the cloudy buzzing drowned out everything else in Jeremy's head. Every step was a roller coaster ride, dizzy and exhilarating.
Lauren was as good as Stephan said. She literally gave him her shoulder to lean on during his second drunken retelling of his troubles. She was appropriately pissed at Carson, pledging her eternal hatred of the man and planning cruel acts of retaliation.
"You know, we should go over to Sin City and tell Bryan..." she started.
"No!" Jeremy interrupted. "Can't see him. Can't tell him," he mumbled unsteadily. "Miss him."
"Oh honey," Lauren said sadly.
"Ruined everything," Jeremy slurred. "My fault." He stood and swayed dangerously. "Can't ... worse."
Lauren stood to steady him. "You better get him home, baby," she told Stephan.
"This ought to be entertaining." Stephan slung Jeremy's limp arm over his shoulder. "If Campus Safety or Jake the Evil RA asks, you're sick and about to vomit on their shoes. That usually works."
During the car ride back to campus, Jeremy kept up a shaky litany of self-blame.
"Are you in love with Lauren?" he asked suddenly.
Stephan considered it. "I think so. I haven't told her or anything. I want to know I love her before I say it, you know?"
"Yeah," Jeremy drawled. "Too soon is bad. Embarrassing. What if, you know, silly ... and stuff."
"Yeah, silly and stuff is a problem," Stephan laughed lightly.
Jeremy didn't provide much help getting back to their room. He decided he could have happily slept under any tree they passed along the way, and said as much. Stephan kept tugging him to the front entrance but stopped just short of the door.
"Oh shit," Stephan murmured.
"Sorry, roomie," Jeremy trilled. "I'll help more. I'm all helpfully."
"Jeremy?" said another voice.
"I don't feel well, officer," Jeremy automatically announced. "I'm about to vomit on your shoes."
He felt a familiar hand on his shoulder. Not Campus Safety, and definitely not Jake the Evil RA. Long fingers, warm palm -- he could feel the tingle through his shirt that his touch always caused.
He looked up and found sad brown eyes. He couldn't stop the silly smile that spread over his face.
"Are you serious about the vomiting?" Bryan said. "Cuz I was waiting to talk to you, but I can reschedule if there's going to be vomiting."
"We've been drowning sorrows in the time-honored tradition," Stephan said, a little out of breath.
"Two Buck Chuck is very potent," Jeremy said solemnly.
"Let me give you a hand," Bryan said, bolstering Jeremy's sagging side.
"Want so much more than a hand," Jeremy sighed.
The two of them slowly maneuvered Jeremy inside and up the stairs. Jeremy was floating on the high-powered buzz the cheap wine had given him.
"Hey!" he exclaimed. "Do you know something? This is the first time I've ever been drunk!"
"I believe it," Stephan grunted under the inert weight pressing on his shoulder. "But I give you high marks for your first attempt."
"So did Bryan," Jeremy laughed. Bryan cleared his throat and readjusted his backpack as Jeremy continued to find himself hilarious.
"Hell," Jeremy continued, "I still haven't ever had any beer. This was seriously the first liquor of my life." He stopped walking suddenly, bring the others to a jerky halt. "Wow, am I pathetic."
"Do you mean that you've had an older boyfriend for the last month and he never bought you booze?" Stephan asked, incredulous.
Jeremy snorted. "As if he needed booze to get me into bed." He lolled his head toward Bryan. "Just needed to look at me the right way. Smile at me, that mouth." He swerved back to Stephan. "Have you seen him smile? I mean, really seen him?"
"Not lately," Stephan said grimly, still trying to get his roommate to their door.
"Mmmm, that mouth," Jeremy cooed, low and gravely. "The things he can do with -- oh, but that's details, sorry Steph. Noooooo details about mouths and boy things. Nope. Noooooo details."
Even as drunk as he was, Jeremy found it odd that Bryan remained curiously quiet this whole time. Normally, Bryan did the lion's share of their communicating; Jeremy was content to simply observe and listen. Well, not tonight.
Stephan let Jeremy hang exclusively from Bryan while he unlocked their door. "Here we go, buddy." He tried to reposition himself to help Jeremy inside.
"I've got him," Bryan said.
"From day one," Jeremy said with his face muffled in Bryan's chest. "Got me good."
Bryan briefly caressed the back of Jeremy's head, and Jeremy leaned into the touch.
"Got me too, babe," Bryan whispered.
"Come on, roomie." Stephan tugged Jeremy away and steadied him in his extended fall onto the bed.
"Oooh, dizzy!" Jeremy exclaimed as he experienced his first bed spin.
"Let me help." Bryan pulled off Jeremy's sneakers as Stephan eased off the shirt.
"Yeah, Bryan likes to do the unwrapping," Jeremy giggled.
They awkwardly removed all his clothing except the undershirt and briefs. Jeremy felt sleep settle over his humming bones, and he dug under his pillow to find the thing he needed to fall all the way.
"Where is it," he mumbled, groping under the pillow. He pulled out Bryan's shirt -- the one he had grabbed by mistake during his flight from the darkroom -- and snuggled it against his cheek.
"Oh Jeremy," Bryan whispered.
"God, I'm so pathetic," Jeremy moaned, his eyes shut tight. "It's only been a month, and I want to tell him I love him. But that's insane. I'm convenient." He sneered the last part, thinking of Carson's hateful words. "And I ruined everything. Everyone will laugh, and that's not even the worst part."
Stephan grimaced, knowing that Jeremy would hate it when he realized later that Bryan was around for this drunken speech.
"The worst part is that Bryan won't even be in the basement next year. All because of me."
"That so?" Bryan asked softly.
"Fucking Carson." Jeremy's words were muffled by his pillow. "Won't hire me, hates him. Can't make it worse. Can't go back." He was nearly unconscious, but he felt a warm hand on his head.