IV. Doctor

He went to homeroom then to graduation practice. It was a long, boring day. Their graduation would be Friday night. Juan couldn't wait to get it over with. His mom had his clothes ready for him, hung up in the closet. Several of his relatives would be coming to see him. Juan was more interested in the dinner they were having after the ceremony than the ceremony itself. Juan looked at Nathan while they all sat outside for their mock ceremony. Who would he be celebrating with? Would he be celebrating at all? Juan glanced over at Eric next. Eric was probably going to celebrate with Alex's parents. Juan decided to invite Nathan to come with his family after the ceremony. It didn't seem right to leave him alone. He waited to ask him about it on the way back from school that afternoon. "Hey, do you have plans for after the ceremony?" Juan asked. "Nah." Nathan said. "You know, my family is having this really big party. Do you wanna hang out then? They won't mind." Juan said. "I don't know...I don't really know your family." Nathan said. "And I don't speak Spanish." "That's okay. I can tell them you can't speak it." Juan said. "Nah, it's okay, really. Besides, I know exactly how that's going to go. I don't want to deal with twenty questions about why I don't and why I haven't learned it by now while someone tries to give me an impromptu lesson then and there." Nathan sighed. He pulled into the driveway. "Thanks for the offer. I know you're trying to be really nice, but it's fine. I was going to look for work that night anyway. I need money more than a party, but thanks for offering." Juan sighed, feeling defeated. "Alright. Well, you gotta do what you gotta do. Let me at least save you some cake." "I'm not trying to hurt your feelings. You have been really nice to me, but I just really don't want to go to something like that. I'd appreciate the food though, if you wanted to save me any." Nathan parked the car. "Are you going to be out all night tomorrow?" Juan asked. "Yeah, that's the plan." Nathan got out of the car. "Actually, I'm going out later too. In about an hour or so. Another job." "Really? What kind of job is it?" Juan left the car. "Uh, some more maintenance stuff. Nothing interesting." Nathan looked away from him. They went inside. Nathan took a shower and ate before heading out for his job. Juan thought about texting Maria, but decided against it. She didn't talk to him once since he went over to her house. She avoided him at school. Juan wracked his brain wondering what he had done wrong. He texted Alex instead, but Alex was busy. Alone, Juan went upstairs to see what the rest of his family was up to. He joined his mother in the kitchen to help her fry up some plantains. Her eyes were watery. Juan asked her what was wrong. She told him it was nothing and dried her eyes. At dinner, he saw that his father seemed sad too. At first, Juan thought maybe something had happened at one of their jobs, but then he realized what it really was. He was graduating tomorrow, and in August, he would be starting college in Florida. The number of days he could enjoy sitting around the table with them like this, or cooking in the kitchen with his mother, were limited. Soon, he would leave them. This wouldn't be his 'home' anymore. Somewhere else would be. Juan was excited about going to college. Everyone in his family was. He was so excited at the thought of living on his own and being independent. What that really meant, what he would have to give up for that, finally sunk in. Sadness hit him, then fear. He spent the rest of the afternoon watching TV with his parents. Around eleven, Juan checked his email. He saw he got a response from one of the people he messaged. It was from Roshi. Juan read the message. It said:
Can't answer you here. Send me your email address.
Juan sent him his email. Half an hour later, he received another email. Juan read through it.
Looked into ya, Mr. Selena's biggest fan, Couldn't answer you on the forum. One of the mods is actually connected to Moone & Wolfe. Retro looked a little too deep. You could say a little deer took him out with a bullet to the back of the head while he was 'hunting' in the woods in a place where it's illegal to hunt. His sister knew something was up right away, but they've gotten her to mostly keep quiet. I'm sure you've probably messaged some of the others. Poodle, she's gone too. Her last email to me told me she suspected she was being followed and that if I didn't hear from her again soon, she was dead. I didn't hear from her for a month after that, when I got an email sent to me saying 'If you are receiving this, I have been murdered'. It was one of those timed emails. She kept updating the time to keep it from being sent. Since she wasn't around anymore, it went through. Rabbit is gone. I found that out through Josie. They knew each other offline. They found Rabbit by some train tracks, a little here and a little there. Josie knew something was up, but she was too late to do anything about it or protect herself. They got Josie next. I knew Josie's real name. She was on the news a while back. According to the police, she 'fell' from a ten story building. No one knew why she was there, but she told me before I stopped getting messages from her that she suspected someone was following her. This month, they got Azteca. He didn't post much in the threads, but he talked a lot with us in our private chat. The chat's closed now. One by one, everyone went silent except for me. I don't know what happened to the few others we had in our group, but I presumed they either went quiet to protect themselves or they're dead. I don't recommend you look any deeper than you already have. -Roshi
The email sent a cold chill down Juan's spine. His heart pounded in his ears. Everyone but Roshi was dead. Juan wished Nathan hadn't gone to work that night. He wanted to show the email to someone else, and he really didn't want to be alone right then. Juan sent Roshi an email back.
Thanks for telling me what happened. I know I shouldn't really look any deeper into this, but I have a few questions. Could you send me the videos of Delilah's Daily Dose, the adult movies, and the books? I don't plan on looking any deeper into this than that. I just wanted to know a little more about something from my childhood. And I don't know if you can answer this, but how did you survive if everyone else was killed? What kept you safe?"
Juan turned on the TV to drown out the silence of the basement. A rerun of the day's news ran. He listened to the weatherman give a prediction he knew would be wrong and the complaints of local people about roads not being fixed. An ad for Moone & Wolfe ran during the commercial break. Juan immediately changed the channel to a different news program. Rather than an ad, he got another interview with Dr. Edith Summerfield. Juan caught the segment in the middle of the interview. "If a child can improve via medication, to become more extraordinary, it should be given." Dr. Summerfield told the interviewer. "Our goal is always the betterment of children. We see no reason it should stop with alleviating their mental health symptoms. We want children to reach beyond that and to their highest potential. In many cases, medication can make that happen." The interviewer asked. "Are you saying that Aequa can accomplish this?" "Yes, in most patients." Dr. Summerfield said. "In our research, we have found that heightened emotions are one of the biggest limiting factors in regards to personal success. Mass media manipulates the mind into being constantly excited and favors a short attention span. One of the many wonderful side-effects of Aequa is that is lowers a person's excitability to a more 'normal' level and increases focus. We think Aequa can be used for anyone, whether they have a mental illness or not. Children in particular, especially teenagers, would benefit the most from this treatment. But this isn't all we've been working on." "Right, you mentioned your company has been developing a new form of behavioral therapy, correct? Is this a form of CBT?" "Yes. We call it 3DT, or Deterrence of Disturbance Dependency Therapy. It is somewhat similar to DBT, as emotional regulation is a major focus of our therapy treatment, but there are key differences and it is meant to be paired with Aequa. Currently, we've had a great deal of success using a combination of 3DT with Aequa on teenagers with behavioral problems and with the research group of healthy high school students. The results have been phenomenal. Average students become honor roll students in months. Risky behavior dramatically decreases. Every parent I've talked to has been happy with the results." "This is wonderful." The interviewer pretended to be interested. She leaned in. "Of course, what everyone wants to know is obvious. How expensive is this treatment?" "By the end of the year, 3DT will be covered under most insurances that cover mental health care. Training for this therapy doesn't take long. We've already had hundreds trained." Dr. Summerfield said. Her smile was as fake as before. "That's great news. Well, Dr. Summerfield, thank you for joining us today." The interviewer closed out the interview. After the interview ended, the station mentioned the same discount for Aequa the other news station offered. He changed the channel to an old sitcom. "Gotta sell the therapy too, huh?" Juan lay down on the sofa. "People like you make all doctors look bad. How much money do you need?" Juan fell asleep on the sofa with the TV on. Around two, he woke briefly. He thought he felt something touch him, but when he shined his phone's flashlight around the room, nothing was there. He thought he saw something by the window. It was too dark out. Juan presumed he was seeing things and went back to sleep. For once, Juan didn't remember his dream. Nathan picked him up in the morning. The schedule for Friday was another round of practice, then a short party for the seniors. After that, they would all go home and come back for the ceremony that night. Juan left after the party with Nathan. Maria avoided him again. She still hadn't texted him, and he hadn't texted her. Juan messed around on his computer when he got home. There were many hours left in the day before he needed to start getting ready for the ceremony. Nathan sorted through some papers in front of the TV. Roshi hadn't responded to Juan's email yet. Juan stared at his phone, thinking about Maria. He started to type up a message to her, then deleted it. He sighed. His phone buzzed. Juan checked it immediately. It was Alex. Juan read the text. It said, "Hey I know you don't use social media, but did you know Maria lists herself as single on Facebook?" Juan sat up. He texted back. "Did she always list that?" "No. She changed it either yesterday or today." Alex texted. Another message followed. "Did something happen?" "Not that I know of. Hold on I got some calls to make. Thanks for letting me know." Juan texted him. He called Maria's phone. Nathan looked over at him. "What's up?" "My girlfriend just changed her status to single online." Juan said. "Uh oh." Nathan shook his head. Maria didn't pick up. "She's not answering me." Juan's shoulders dropped. He texted her a message. "Hey baby everything okay?" He got a response almost immediately. "Sorry you have the wrong number." "No, I don't. You've been in my contacts for six months now." Juan texted back. There was no response after that. Juan sent her another message. "Maria, what's going on? Why did you change your status to single?" Maria didn't respond to that message either. "Not going well?" Nathan asked. "She pretended I had the wrong number, then just stopped responding to me." Juan's heart sunk. "Did she just ghost me?" Juan called her number again. Maria didn't pick up. He put his phone down and sunk into his chair. "That sucks. Sorry, man. How long were you dating for?" Nathan said. "Five months. Today would have made it exactly five months." Juan sighed. He had forgotten himself that today was their five month anniversary. They spent so little time with each other lately. "Damn. Well, it's not like you wasted too much of your time on her. In the grand scheme of things, five months isn't really that long." Nathan tried to console him. "Yeah, I guess." Juan rested his head on his desk. "I'd unfriend her, but I never had a Facebook." Juan went to look at her account profile himself to see the single status. Instead, he saw she listed herself as being in a relationship with Carl Simmons. Juan sat back up. "What the fuck?!" Nathan looked at his screen. "Wow. That was fast. Who's Carl Simmons?" "That fucking bastard!" Juan called Carl. "Hello?" Carl answered. "Carl, what the fuck, man? Why is Maria listing you as her boyfriend?" Juan yelled. "Cause we're dating? We've been dating for two months." Carl said smugly. "What?!" Juan yelled louder. "I've been dating her the last five months!" "I know." "You ass! I thought we were friends." "You thought wrong. Later." Carl hung up on him. "Damn. She was two-timing you?" Nathan grimaced. "For two months! With fucking Carl of all people!" Juan threw his phone down. "Who the fuck is Carl?!" "That moron was part of the Atheists, Agnostics, and Skeptics club like me. He's a loony Flat Earther who thinks the end of the world is near. Alex kicked him out of the club because he wouldn't stop talking about Flat Earth bullshit and dinosaur fossils being a conspiracy conducted by 'Satanists'. The dude's totally nuts. I can't believe she left me for that." Juan crossed his arms. He was furious. Nathan looked over at the sasquatch poster on the wall and said, "Yeah, it's crazy." "Fuck. I can't believe I thought we were friends. I know we kicked him out of the club, but Alex was the one that did it, not me. Is this revenge?" "Don't worry about it. Doubt it would've lasted much longer after graduation anyway. Let the cheaters be together." Nathan said. "Oh, did you use protection? Might wanna get tested." "I always used a condom. I can't risk an accidental baby. Thank god I did. Who knows what Carl might have. That guy's nasty in general." "I thought you two were friends." "Yeah, well, there's a lot you'll put up with when its your friend." Juan picked his phone back up. He deleted both Maria and Carl's numbers from his phone. "I'm gonna get a beer. You want one?" "Nah. I have a job to go to soon. I wanted to get a little work in before we head back." Nathan said. "You know, maybe you should go hang out with Alex and Eric for a while until the ceremony. That might cheer you up." "Yeah, maybe." Juan texted Alex if he could stop by. He got a beer after that. Nathan dropped Juan off at Alex's house before heading to his job. Juan rang the doorbell. Alex answered the door. He said, "Hey." "Hey." Juan walked inside. He noticed there was only one car in the driveway. By this time, usually one of Alex's parents were home. "Your parents not home?" "They're on a trip right now. They'll be back tonight for the ceremony, then they're going on another trip in the morning." Alex said. He closed the door. "So, it's just you and Eric, huh?" "Yep." "Gonna make your move?" Juan nudged him. "Shh. He's here too, you know." Alex lowered his voice. He grinned. "But, yeah." "I wish you better luck than I had with Maria." Juan said. Alex asked. "What happened with Maria? I thought you were saying she might be the one or whatever." "She was two-timing me with Carl Simmons." Juan said bluntly. Alex laughed loudly. "It's not funny!" "I'm sorry." Alex covered his mouth. He kept laughing. "But it is. Were you not weird enough for her? Too normal? Haha, what the actual fuck." "Aw, come on. Stop laughing." Juan begged him. "You should consider yourself lucky. If she thinks that guy's worth her time, she wasn't worth yours." Alex patted him on the back. "You dodged a bullet there." "Yeah, I guess." "Carl Simmons. Wow. I'm kinda surprised. I thought he was really racist." "Is he?" "I mean, I never heard him say anything to me, but I've heard Zack and Eric mention things he's said when I wasn't around that were pretty gross. I guess he just couldn't resist Maria. Or maybe he makes a special exception for certain people. I know he hates Asian people. I dunno. Maybe it's only Asian people he hates." Alex shrugged. "I'm gonna be honest. That was kinda the real reason I kicked him out of the club, but I didn't want to get into a fight with him over what's racist and what's not." "Damn. Well, fuck him then." That was the first Juan had heard of that, but he did know Carl sometimes made some questionable comments about Asian people. He wondered if Alex was right about it being one specific race he was bigoted against. "Hey, I'm going to work. They asked me to come in for a couple hours." Eric came down the stairs. "Oh, hey Juan." "Hey." Juan waved to him. "You sure you don't want me to drop you off?" Alex asked. "It's not that far. I wouldn't mind if you picked me up afterwards though." Eric said. "Okay. Text me when you're about to get off work." Alex said. "And don't let them make you stay too late. We have to have time to get ready too." "I know." Eric hugged Alex tightly. "I'll see you later." "Have a good day at work." Alex hugged him back. His face was beet red. Eric snuck in a kiss before pulling away. "You too." Alex, completely flustered, waved at him. "B-bye." Eric grinned and waved back as he left. Juan couldn't believe what he just saw. He teased Alex. "Did he just kiss you goodbye?" "Yeah...He's been doing that lately." Alex's cheeks were still a deep red. "And you're still not sure if he likes you? You two looked like a married couple." "Yeah, I guess." Alex looked away to hide his face. He sat down on the couch. "Anyway, enough about that. Let's talk about something else." Juan joined him on the couch. "Why? Are you that embarrassed about it?" "I am not embarrassed." Alex glared, his face flushed. "Sure." Juan laughed. "Come on. Just ask him out already. You know, since it's legal now, you guys could get married one day." "Married?!" Alex's eyes lit up. He covered his face with his hands. "I don't know if it'd go that far...I don't even know if he likes me..." Juan laughed. Through Alex's fingers, he could see how red his face was. Juan was certain if he touched Alex's face, it would be burning hot. He noticed even Alex's ears were red. He smiled. Juan had never seen Alex so flustered before. He always put up a front and hid away every vulnerable part of himself. This wasn't how Juan expected Alex would be in love. He found it adorable and sweet. Juan couldn't help himself from wanting to see them end up together. Juan nudged him. "Don't give me that. I can tell he does. You two look good together." "Do you think so?" Alex uncovered his still red face. "Yeah. I'm sure it'll work out." "Don't laugh at me...but I'm...I'm really nervous about asking him. Even if he says yes...I don't want to mess up anything. I'm scared I'm going to screw everything up." Alex's shoulders sunk. "You won't." Juan reassured him. "I hope so." "Hey, can I ask you something?" Juan asked. "How did you know you were gay?" "It really wasn't that hard to sort out. I was in denial for a while, because I didn't want to be both half-Asian and gay. I already have to deal with plenty of crap from bigoted rednecks just from not being white, and adding on the gay angle would make it worse. Well, that's what I was thinking as a kid. The therapist I used to see helped me work through that and accept it." Alex relaxed more as he talked. His face returned to normal. "It's really weird in retrospect. I was never really homophobic or anything like that. My parents are super liberal. Really, I was just afraid of being bullied." "Might be safer you aren't really out to most people right now. There's a lot of assholes around here." Juan said. "But I got your back, if you need somebody's ass kicked for harassing you." "Thanks." "I'm a little sad you didn't tell me. Did you think I'd hate you?" Juan asked. "I don't know. Knowing you, and all my other friends, really, I shouldn't have any reason to worry about that, but...I have this lingering fear with everyone. It took me until this year to actually come out to my parents. My parents have had pro-gay marriage stickers on their cars since I was in elementary school." Alex laughed at himself. "You know, you worry a lot about stuff you really don't need to." "I know." "I bet when you ask Eric out, you're gonna look back at all this and laugh." "Probably." Alex laughed. He added. "I hope." "There you go again." Juan rolled his eyes and smiled. "You always worry about everything. Relax. It'll all work out." "Hey, sorry about what happened with Maria. I hope you find someone better soon." Alex said. "Ah, I'm done thinking about her. There's plenty of girls out there." Juan leaned back. A thought crossed his mind. Curious, he asked. "What's it like kissing a guy? I've never really thought about it before." "Um...I mean, I've never kissed a girl, so I can't really compare. I don't think it'd be that different. I don't know." Alex shrugged. "Huh." "Why? Did you want to try it?" Alex asked. "I don't know. This conversation has got me thinking about this. I know I like girls. Definitely like girls. But what if that's not the end of it? What if I'm unnecessarily limiting my options?" Juan stroked his chin, thinking things he never considered before. Alex was skeptical. "Are you sure you're not thinking about this because Maria just dumped you?" "Who knows. Hey...okay, this is crazy..." "I'm not having sex with you." Alex interrupted him. "Whoah...I wasn't gonna go that far right off the bat." Juan shook his head. "Also, why not?" "You're not my type. Besides, you know I like Eric." "You're not dating. It's not cheating." Juan said. "I know, but...Look, I'm not interested in you like that." "What about a kiss?" Juan asked. "Mm..." Alex thought it over. "I mean...you are my friend. I guess...I guess I could help you out." "What about touching?" "Maybe...a little." "Where should we do this?" "Um, here's fine, I guess?" Alex said. "Uh, how should we do this? Should I just...kiss you now?" Juan faced Alex. His body tensed. "This position is...awkward..." Alex lay down on his back against the couch. He fixed his glasses. "Get on top of me." "Oh, do you like that position?" Juan teased him as he hovered over Alex. "Shut up." "Never thought I'd be in this position with you." Juan was inches from Alex's face. "Me either." Alex put his arms around Juan's neck. "Are we doing this or not?" Juan closed his eyes. He kissed Alex. At first, it felt weird. He couldn't stop thinking about how he was kissing Alex. Alex was really good at kissing, he had to admit, but something felt off to him about what he was doing. Alex rubbed the front of Juan's pants. He didn't mind the contact. Juan kissed down Alex's neck. He didn't hate it so far. Alex unbuttoned Juan's pants. Juan pulled up Alex's shirt. He felt over Alex's chest. He felt something, but he wasn't sure what it was. He didn't know if it was disgust or panic setting in from doing something so unusual for him. Juan worked up his courage to go lower. He unzipped Alex's pants and pulled down his underwear. Seeing Alex like that embarrassed him. The strange feeling grew. His heart pounded in his ears. He tried touching him a little, but stopped after a few seconds. He thought he might throw up, but he wasn't sure quite why. He wasn't exactly disgusted. He might've been disinterested. His hands were shaking as much as his stomach hurt. Did he push himself too far too fast, he wondered. Was it seeing Alex like this that was making him react this way? Did he really hate it? Was it because he knew Alex liked Eric? Juan didn't know the reason for his reaction, or if he hated or enjoyed what he did, but he knew he wanted to stop. He sat up. "What?" Alex asked. "No." Juan said flatly. "Haha. What's wrong?" Alex fixed his clothes. He laughed. "Sorry...I don't think I can do this..." Juan put his hands to his face. "You don't need to apologize. We were seeing if you like it. You don't have to like it." Alex sat up. There was a hint of red in his cheeks. "Maybe I'm not into that after all." Juan said. He fixed his own clothes. "You could try touching me more. Just to be sure." Alex joked. "Are you screwing with me?" Juan asked. "Haha. Of course." Alex laughed again. "Didn't seem to mind me touching your dick." "That...I mean, yeah, but...I dunno...touching you back was...giving me a weird feeling. Also, I had my eyes closed for that other part." Juan tried to understand the reaction his body was having. He couldn't make any sense of it either way. "Let's see what happens with your eyes open." Alex put his hands down Juan's pants. Juan faced Alex while he touched him. He felt strange, aroused, and uncomfortable. "It's...I still feel weird." "Well, that's that then." Alex stopped. "Did you just want to touch my dick again?" Juan asked. "No. That didn't really do anything for me either." Alex said. "Really?" "I told you. You're not my type." "What if you're just not my type? I couldn't stop thinking about how it was you." Juan said. "You could try with someone else." Alex shrugged. "Mm...I don't know. I think my curiosity has been satisfied for now." Juan shook his head. Something finally clicked. 'I did this because I was mad about Maria...that's it.' Juan wasn't sure if he would have even considered doing something like that otherwise. Doing that, and with a close friend like Alex, just out of spite for her, was what was making him feel strange. He couldn't consider today an answer to anything about his own sexuality. Juan decided to file that away to think about some other time. He wasn't sure he wanted to explore that sort of thing at all anyway. "Damn. And here I was reconsidering the sex part." Alex teased him. Juan's eyes widened. "You're joking, right?" "Absolutely." Alex smirked. "When you say it like that, it's kinda rude." The strange feeling was starting to leave Juan. "I know plenty of people at school think you're hot. It's your interests that scare them off." Alex said. He let something else slip. "Kinda my opinion as well." "It's not my fault most people are close-minded." Juan didn't catch Alex's implication at first. "I'm sure you'll find a new girlfriend in Florida at the local ghost hunting association or whatever." Alex tried to cheer him up. "Yeah." Juan finally realized what Alex said. He grinned. "So you do think I'm hot." Alex froze for a second. He blushed while he pretended to be unbothered by what Juan said. "What does that matter?" "Don't fall for me." Juan said. "That's really not a concern." "You're so mean." Alex leaned in and kissed him. The look Alex gave him made Juan's heart race in a different way than earlier. "You know, your love of all that spooky nonsense is kinda cute." Juan's face went red. For a moment, he thought about asking Alex to continue what they stopped. Alex pulled away. "But that's exactly why you'll never be on my mind when I'm alone." "Cold." Juan said. "What did you really come over here for, Juan? I know it wasn't to make out with me." Alex asked. "I dunno. Been thinking about a lot of weird stuff lately, stuff you wouldn't believe." Juan put his hands together. He slouched forward. "I can imagine." Alex picked up his phone and opened up an app. "Are you ignoring me?" Juan asked, disappointed. "No, I'm ordering food. Are you okay with Chinese?" Alex looked up at him. "Oh, sure." Juan said. Alex ordered them food. They ate together in the kitchen. Alex kept an eye on his phone for any messages, Juan assumed, from Eric. "I guess you've been dealing with more than I thought. I always assumed you lived a pretty good life, but you've been hiding a lot of stuff, huh?" Juan said. "How long did you see a therapist?" "I started seeing him when I was really young, around the time my parents were suing that doctor for malpractice. That was a really bad time." Alex leaned against the table. "The worst of it was in middle school, but it's been bad on and off for different reasons." "What kind of stuff?" Juan asked. "Well, this area isn't exactly the most progressive. There's a lot of bigoted people around here. It's not like anything particular did it. But over time, shit gets to you, you know?" Alex picked at his food. "I've tried...I've tried to kill myself before." Juan stopped eating. He looked up at Alex. He wanted Alex to smile and tell him he was making a crass, dark joke. Alex half-smiled. "Sorry, you probably don't want to hear that." "When...when did that happen?" Juan asked. "The most recent time wasn't that long ago. I was going to use a gun." Alex said. He stared down at the table. "How close did you get?" "My mom caught me getting the gun out." Alex said. "I can't explain to you why I wanted to do it. It's like my brain was really foggy and fixated on the idea." "Why didn't you tell me about that?" Alex stared up at him. "I don't know. It's not really something you just say. I know it looks like my life is perfect. My family has a lot of money thanks to that lawsuit, but that money came with a heavy price. My parents almost divorced during that, my mom was so depressed she was suicidal at one point, and I was left alone and confused." "Was it really that big of a deal? That she couldn't get pregnant?" Juan asked. "It wasn't really about that. It's that the doctor didn't tell her what he did, that he fucked up. She told me later she felt violated by it...That the doctor cared so little about her he didn't bother to own up to his mistakes and let her know. Suing that bastard cost us a lot of money too. Things were really tight for a while. My parents fought a lot about money and whether the lawsuit was worth it. My stepdad started saying it was pointless, and it really hurt her." Alex took a big gulp of his drink. "I had a lot of mixed up thoughts back then. I was so little I didn't really grasp most of what was going on, and I started thinking...why does my mom care so much that she can't have another baby? Am I not enough? Is it because I don't look like my stepdad?" "I'm sorry. I didn't realize how rough things were for you back then." Juan reached across the table and put his hand on Alex's. "I don't really talk about this stuff much with other people. I've carried a lot of self-hatred with me over time. That was one reason. I'm sure you can guess two others." Alex forced himself to smile again. "I'm okay now. Right now, I'm more worried about keeping Eric safe." "Man, I'm really sorry. I always thought you just...didn't have any problems. I'm sorry." Juan didn't know how to take all of that information. He felt guilty for thinking a lot of things about Alex. He always saw Alex as both really strong and a little spoiled. His stomach turned at the thought of what might have happened if Alex's mom didn't walk in on him getting that gun that day. A heavy weight lingered in his chest. "Jeez, next you're gonna tell me Zack has some dark secrets." Alex winced. "Um..." Juan's heart raced. "Oh god, what are you about to tell me?" "I mean...you know Zack's oldest brother killed himself, right?" Alex said. "I..what? Wait, do you mean Tyler? When did that happen?!" Juan could barely breath his heart was pounding so fast. Alex shook his head and quickly corrected him. "No, Tyler wasn't originally the oldest. This happened years ago. Zack's oldest brother's name was Jaden. He got involved in a lot of weird stuff and well, from what I've heard from Tyler, they think some of his 'friends' pushed him to do it." "I had no idea. He never said anything about that to me." "He was really young then. You didn't know him when it happened." Alex said. "This happened when we were in fourth grade. Zack didn't go to school for three weeks straight after it happened. Eric and I went to see him whenever we could. Zack doesn't talk about it much now. I don't think he can. It's too painful." "That's...I can't imagine." Juan started to sweat. "You...you haven't thought about that kind of stuff recently, right?" "I didn't mean to freak you out earlier, when I said I've been suicidal before. It's in the past. I wouldn't do something like that now. But...Eric got really close to doing that a while ago. Don't let him know I told you." Alex's eyes had an intense look in them. "That was when I knew I had to get him out of there. The way things were going, his parents were going to put him in the grave. I'd had enough." "How close did he get?" Juan asked. Alex went quiet for a minute. "When I got him out, he was in the middle of a panic attack and he told me he couldn't find the key to his dad's gun safe. If he had, or if I'd been a little later, Eric might not be here right now." "Oh my god...I thought his parents were probably abusive, but..." "My parents know about most of it. That's why they've been so insistent on him staying with us. You know I really like Eric, but us staying together isn't because I want to date him. Before anything else, he's my best friend. I'm doing this to keep my friend safe. Getting to spend more time with Eric is a nice bonus, but the main reason he's here is so I can keep him safe." Alex explained the situation to Juan. "That's why I told you him saying he wants to stay with me isn't necessarily romantic. Eric's not able to function on his own yet. Right now, he needs my help to get through regular things you and I don't need help with. If that is his only intentions with that, to stay stable, and there's nothing on his end toward me romantically, that's fine. If I can get him on his feet again, the rest doesn't matter." Juan was overwhelmed by everything Alex told him. "Damn, Alex. You're gonna make me cry." "What? Why?" "Why you gotta be so noble and shit like that? Damn." "I didn't do anything special. You'd do the same if you were in my shoes. I know how you are." Alex said. "What's that mean?" Juan asked. "You're a big, romantic softie. I bet you cry over puppy rescue videos when you're alone." Alex teased. "Hey, those videos get really sad!" Juan did not deny it. "Like I said." Alex clarified one last point. "But don't bring that stuff up with Eric. He's okay with talking about his parents, but not that stuff." "I won't." Juan looked over at him. "Um, is Eric why you want to study mental illness?" "No, it's...I wanted to give back in some way. The therapist I went to really helped me a lot. I wanted to be able to help other people like me." Juan remembered something. "Hey, didn't you intern with Moone & Wolfe last summer?" "Huh? Oh, yeah. That place." Alex was visibly annoyed. "Why? This isn't about that thing with...that guy from your elementary school, is it?" Juan laughed off that Alex was partly right. He said. "Ah, no. Actually, I was looking into the company more because I've been seeing ads about them lately. I came across some really bad stuff about conditions at some of the hospitals. Did you see anything weird while you were interning with them?" "Well, not exactly, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of their hospitals did have unethical stuff happening at them. Abuse at places like that is still pretty common. You just don't hear about it as much because of how nice things are for rich people." Alex crossed his arms. "What do you mean?" Juan asked. "Patients with more severe disorders may be intentionally targeted by staff because of outdated or incorrect ideas about those disorders. Schizophrenia, Borderline Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, Bipolar, even PTSD...people have a lot of weird ideas about disorders like those. You have to think that the bulk of staff working in a place like that aren't licensed doctors. You need all kinds of staff to run a hospital or facility well. And, unfortunately, doctors themselves may be part of the abuse. Rape is pretty common too, and well...a lot of places don't have enough beds." Alex said. "And you want to work somewhere like that?" Juan asked, shocked. "I don't want to work in place like that. But abuse is more common than people think. That isn't every place, but...the less money you have, the less choices you have. Good care doesn't come cheap. That's not really something I can fix on my own. Everything about healthcare in this country is messed up. Profit comes before people." Alex leaned back in his chair. "So, you know, I wouldn't be shocked if they were skimping on care for the patients on a sliding scale or if certain patients were being treated differently than others. They own a lot of places. Some of them don't have Moone & Wolfe in the name either. I don't know how the ones operating under different names compare to the others." "They do? What are the other names?" Juan asked. He didn't recall that being mentioned in the threads he read through, but most of the threads were full of deleted posts. "Hmm...what was it?" Alex opened his phone to look up the information. "Summer Springs Rehabilitation Center, Swallow Creek Psychiatric Hospital, Shimmer Falls Behavioral Center, and Peaceful Lake Counseling. Most of the ones running under Moone & Wolfe's name are in the south, but the other four are spread out all over and Moone & Wolfe is supposedly going to open up locations across the country by the end of the year." "Is...is it normal for a company like that to own competitors?" Juan asked. "Sure. They are out for profit. There's actually a lot fewer private companies involved in this business than you'd think. It's like when you go into Walmart and you'll see a hundred brands, but five companies will own all of them. Welcome to America." Alex shrugged. "Damn...guess I need to look more into that. So much for choices." "Businesses are really good at giving you the freedom to choose from a handful of slightly different items made in the same factory overseas, branded under different names with slightly different prices." Alex sighed. "Because business is business, cuts happen and people look the other way on a lot of things they don't want to deal with. If it doesn't get out to the general public, abuse can run rampant and they just don't care. With how lax regulations are across...well, everything, I'm sure at least one of their locations is questionable." "Wow." Juan shook his head. "Have you ever thought of doing some undercover investigation into that?" "Oh, hell no. You should know better than anyone what a company might do to protect its profits." Alex smirked at Juan. "I still remember being in sixth grade and you handing me this long ass print out of some website at lunch about some chemical company poisoning people's water supply and threatening people trying to sue them over it. How many pages was it? Like thirty?" "I don't think it was that many...was it?" Juan scratched the back of his head and looked away. "I think you're thinking of the alien one." "No, I remember that one. The alien one was definitely over thirty pages." Alex laughed. "There were a lot of pictures in it!" "Uh huh. From movies." Alex laughed again. "I get looking into corrupt companies, but I will never understand why you're into all that paranormal and UFO stuff." "You never know what could be out there. One day, one of those photos or videos might be real." Juan said. "I'll buy it when any of those people actually start applying the scientific method when they do their 'research' and produce some replicable data." Alex said. "Come on. There has to be one thing you believe in that doesn't have any scientific evidence for it. You can't be 100% pure skeptic. No one is." Juan challenged him. "I don't see any reason to." "That sounds right, if humans were reasonable and always logical, but we're not. Why deny it? Come on. What's Mr. Skeptic's one superstition?" Juan poked lightly at Alex's hand with his chopsticks. "One..." Alex went quiet, thinking of what to say. "I guess...I mean...this might be more in line with wishful thinking, but...sometimes, I wonder if there really is something after death. Not like Heaven or with any god, but something...I dunno, different. But I think that's one of those things we all sort of want to believe in, because no one wants to die. So, it's probably not true. This is probably all there is." "You couldn't even finish the sentence before debunking yourself. Man, I'd love to see how our brains compare." Juan said. Alex smiled. "Yeah, that'd be something." Juan was glad to see Alex smiling and laughing with him. Between the talk of suicide and corruption, Juan couldn't shake the feeling of unease that lingered around them. Juan and Alex hung out until Eric texted he was off of work. No matter what they talked about after that, the mood from before never really returned. Alex's words to him that he wouldn't do anything like that again didn't ease Juan's fears. Now, he worried about both of them. Juan hoped once Alex and Eric finally confessed to each other and they were away from this place at college, those dark thoughts would get further and further away. As for the information about Moone & Wolfe, he kept that at the back of his mind to research later.
V. Deeper