Thorn excerpt

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Thorn (Heartwood 3)
Emily Carrington
All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2020 Emily Carrington

Religion was one of those things people got divorced over.

Oh, calm down. You had mind-blowing sex just a few days ago, and the only reason you haven’t had any since is because you’ve both been busy. And he loves you. Aidan admitted he was being paranoid, but sometimes the world felt fragile to him. Rick the Dick Hanlon coming back had thrown the Earth off its axis a little. And even though Aidan and Mike had weathered that storm, it would be an ongoing disaster movie because Rick the Dick wasn’t going away. He’d keep cropping up in their lives, eroding Mike’s confidence in himself. Damn him anyway, that violating bastard.

“Okay, okay,” Ashley said. “You don’t have to use the silent treatment to get me to talk.”

Aidan realized he’d wandered far afield. “I wasn’t,” he confessed, believing in his heart that lying only led to misunderstandings. “I was thinking… about church.” That was what had started him down that road, wasn’t it? “I can’t force you to talk. Nor would I want to. But you’re in pain. That much is obvious. I know you’ve really grown closer to Mike and Candice than to me, but I wanted you to know I’m a listening ear if you need one.”

She made a noise that sounded indecisive. “I don’t want Mike to know.”

Aidan winced. “I don’t keep secrets from my husband lightly. And most secrets are dangerous.”

“If I told you, you’d have to tell him?”

“If it’s something that he doesn’t need to know, and his ignorance wouldn’t hurt him, I’d keep your words private. But otherwise? I’ll absolutely tell him.”

“It’s not hurting me or anyone else,” she said. “I’m not suicidal and I’m not doing drugs.” She paused. “I’m not pregnant.”

Aidan considered that. “I’m glad for all of those things. And you’re right; I would have to share those with Mike. Can you tell me what it’s about without telling me the secret? I don’t want to betray your trust.”

“You’ve been straight up with me.” She was quiet for several seconds. Then, finally, she said, “It’s about… I don’t know. I’m not a lesbian or anything, but I’m…”

This was the last thing he’d expected. But it was familiar territory. After he’d come out at school back in California, at least half a dozen fellow students had approached him to “confess.” “This is something you and I can keep between us,” he told her.

“Because Mike wouldn’t understand?”

“No. Because whatever orientation you are doesn’t affect how he cares about you. Heck, it doesn’t influence how I care about you either, but if you need to get it off your chest or out in the open where we can explore together, I’m here to listen.”

“I’m not a guy-thing,” she said.

Aidan was amused by that turn of phrase but kept his laughter inside.

“But I’m not a girl either. I mean, I’m not trans, if I understand transgender correctly.”

That sounded like almost a question. So he answered it. “Being trans, understanding that you’re trans, can be difficult. But if you don’t feel as though you were born with the wrong parts physically, maybe you’re nonbinary.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m not entirely sure. But I think nonbinary is when you don’t want to conform to the binary equation of male or female.” He thought of a singer who’d run that way. Shame he couldn’t think of the name they had gone by. Damn, but he couldn’t even think if they’d been born male or female. He cast that over his shoulder. “Is that why you like being called Ash sometimes? Because it’s a gender-neutral name?”

“It’s not,” she said. “The only Ash I know is from Pokémon.”

That was, in fact, the only Ash that Aidan knew, as well. “Okay, but it could be gender neutral. Many names started out one way and became another. Like Ashley, actually. There was George Ashley Wilkes or something like that in Gone With The Wind.”

“I just like Ash because… I like it.”

“That’s the best reason to adopt a nickname,” Aidan told her honestly.

“Nonbinary.” She seemed to taste the word. “Non meaning neither and binary meaning boy or girl.”

She had the general idea.

“Does that mean I have to change my, um, whatever-it’s-called?”

Aidan raised an eyebrow. “Since I don’t know what you mean, I can’t say for sure.”

“My, um, whether you call me ‘he’ or ‘she.’”

“Your pronoun,” Aidan supplied. “And that depends on you.”

“Are there other pronouns?”

“‘Ze’ is one. ‘S/he’ is another, although it sounds a lot like ‘she.’ Or ‘hir’ though that sounds like ‘her’. And there’s ‘they.’”

“I don’t like any of those.”

“That’s okay. You don’t have to choose one right now. Or ever. Just because you’re thinking about being nonbinary doesn’t mean you have to change anything about yourself.”

“I’d like to change my clothes.” She sounded shy. “Maybe if we go school clothes shopping, I could find… stuff that’s not so girly.”

“Definitely. Although you’ll probably have to explain some of what you’re feeling to Mike at that point. Why don’t you want to tell him? He’s just as gay as I am.”

She giggled. “That’s not why I wanted to tell you.”

“No?”

“Nope. You just… you seem to know everything about the LGBTQ community.”

Aidan chuckled. “Not everything. Although I’m waiting for the day when the whole world, or at least Marisburg, is ready to accept QUILTBAG.”

“What’s that?”

“Hold on a second. I have one more question to ask you before Mike gets out here. You’re not eating on Sunday mornings. What’s Sunday got to do with your discomfort about not telling Mike about being nonbinary?”

She didn’t answer right away. Then, very quietly, she responded, “If they’re judgmental about you guys being gay, they’re not going to accept me being nonbinary.”

This was about church. “You don’t have to go,” spilled out of Aidan’s mouth.

She made a derisive noise, then immediately apologized. “You’ve got to know this. When a foster parent tells you that, they don’t really mean it. They mean ‘if you don’t go, we’re going to give you back.’”

Aidan’s heart ached for her and he took her hand. “I’ve been staying home.”

“Not anymore.”

“That’s to protect Mike. You’re old enough to stay home for a couple of hours by yourself.”

“I like it here,” she whispered. “I don’t want to leave.” She got up, pulling out of his grasp. “Please don’t tell Mike I said anything.” And she was escaping, moving across the living room and toward her room.

Oh, Ash, he thought, you don’t deserve to hold the weight of the world on your little shoulders. He realized this was how he felt about Mike too. He supposed that meant no one should have to bear such a heavy load, but right now he was concerned with his almost-daughter and his husband. Sometimes, I think we’d be better off moving. They couldn’t, though. Not with the price of their house hanging over their heads. And besides, “retreat” wasn’t really in Aidan’s vocabulary.

No, but protecting my loved ones is. Maybe if we moved…

He was still puzzling this through when Mike, Candice, and Ashley came into the kitchen. “Ready to go?” Mike asked.