“Where are you going?” I rushed behind Tony.
“Home. Where I was told to go.” He never looked back, just kept his fast stride to his car. Tony’s long slim legs moved fast and my five foot tall frame, struggled to catch up to him.
“I’m coming with you.”
Something on the inside told me it wasn’t a good idea to send him alone. My cousin didn’t inherit the Freeman temper everyone said my grandfather possessed, but his demeanor today showed that it could be in there just waiting for the right moment to come out. Grandpa Will died when I was a baby so I never got to witness it firsthand, but I heard enough to know he was no one to mess with.
“Can you tell me what’s going on?” I asked Tony as he zoomed out of the driveway and slung my body against the door.
“So you didn’t know either?” He glanced at me then back at the road. Tony’s brown skin was now pale. He looked like he was going to be sick at any moment. Unlike me, my cousin didn’t handle drama very well, which was funny considering the lifestyle he lived.
Tony pulled off to the shoulder of the road. He leaned his head against the headrest before banging the steering wheel with his fist over and over again.
I watched in confusion as my mild mannered cousin went into a full rage and I still had no idea why.
“Tony,” I lowered my voice so I wouldn’t set him off any more than he already was. When we were children and he’d get upset from the other kids picking on him, I was usually the only person who could make him smile. Tony was always different. Grandma Hazel hated it, and Aunt Claudia and Uncle Ken were too busy with their careers to care one way or the other. I’m sure they knew their son was unlike the other boys, but as long as he didn’t get into any trouble they were fine. I was the one who was there for him. Most days I’d know just what to say to make everything right, but my magic didn’t seem to work too well today.
He looked at me and forced a weak smile. Then he shook his head as tears ran down his face.
“He’s not my father,” he said barely above a whisper.
“What?” I leaned closer to him.
Tony swiped a tear that had just fallen. “You heard me. Kenneth Freeman is not my father. I know this because Kenneth Freeman is sterile and always has been according to the medical records I found.” He laughed a gut wrenching hearty laugh that was filled with pain and anger.
I sat speechless. I needed time to let the words register. Once they did I felt my eyes starting to sting. I didn’t realize I was crying until Tony wiped my cheek with his finger. Something about that revelation tore me apart. If Uncle Ken wasn’t Tony’s father, then that meant Tony and I weren’t blood cousins. The only person, other than Grandma Hazel, that I loved with everything in me wasn’t even related to me.
“This doesn’t change anything, Tony.” I said those words for my benefit as well as his. “We’re still cousins and Uncle Ken is your father in every way that’s important.”
Tony stared straight ahead. He ran his hand over his short wavy hair. He did that when he was stressed. When we were younger he’d twist it around his finger. He used to have long pretty hair. Way too long and much too pretty for a boy, but Aunt Claudia refused to cut it.
“Now I get it. Now I understand why it’s so easy for her to hate me. It’s not hard when there’s no relation.” He shook his head.
“Grandma Hazel doesn’t hate you. She just doesn’t understand you.” I wanted to believe that so badly myself. Grandma Hazel did have a very strong dislike for Tony. She’d always say he’s not natural. God didn’t mean for him to live like that. She couldn’t accept that his dating pool was open to all genders, races, and sizes. It was too much for Grandma Hazel to handle.
“And she never tried to understand. I wasn’t important enough for her to spend the time to talk to me. Get to know how I was feeling. Do you know how it feels to get rejection from your peers and your family? That hurts.” Tony opened the glove compartment to remove a cleaning wipe. He rubbed it over the dashboard. Tony was a neat freak, unlike myself.
I wanted to tell Tony that it may help if he’d pick a side and stay on it, maybe Grandma Hazel would be more accepting, but even I knew that wasn’t true. The only side she would accept is the female side and nothing else. Tony’s lifestyle was quite complicated. His sexuality depended on his location. In Bayou and surrounding areas, he was a lady’s man. He’d built quite the reputation as being a player, but when he passed the state line he converted into Toni. The transformation was rather impressive, I must admit, but it’s also very dangerous. Tony never chose an average Joe. All his men were high profile in their professions. Most, if not all, were pro athletes and A-list actors. People who would go to any extent to silence him if they ever felt like exposure was a possibility. I’d read the horror stories and thinking of losing Tony was depressing. I wish I could get him to see that, but he loved playing this game and it paid off well for him financially. He’d never had a real job, but he has condos in New Orleans, Memphis, and Houston, and a very nice two-story house here in Bayou.
“I have no idea who I am.” He spoke more to himself than to me.
The reality of what he’d just said was more powerful than he may have realized. He was right, he had no idea and he hadn’t known for a very long time. Maybe that would explain the split identities. When Tony turned into Toni, he went full force. Nothing about him said male, except for the Adam’s apple that was only slightly evident after he’d had it shaved down. He was searching for the real him. Maybe this reality would help him sort things out.
“So what now?” I rubbed his shoulder.
“I don’t know. My original plan was to burst in the house and confront them and go postal, but you messed that up by coming along and calming me down.” He jabbed my arm playfully.
I was relieved he’d said that. I couldn’t imagine a battle between Tony and Uncle Ken ending too well for either one of them. Tony’s lean and tall, but he’s far from weak. Then there’s Uncle Ken who’s just as tall and slightly bigger, and even though he’s older, I can’t imagine my uncle going down without a fight. It’s not in the Freeman’s to give up. I’d heard that line my whole life.
“You wanna hear something crazy?” Tony asked.
I shifted my body towards him and leaned against the door. “Yeah.”
“I always knew something was odd about our family. I mean look at us. I look nothing like my parents. How can you explain two high yella people making a brown child?” He lifted a brow.
“It is possible you know. Genetics are strange like that. Look at me and Rachel, we look nothing alike.” I stated with more pride than I should probably feel.
“Yeah, but you look like Grandma Hazel. At the very least you can say you resemble someone in this family. I don’t look like none of y’all.” His Bayou accent came out the more he talked.
“Don’t get caught up on skin color and stop jumping to conclusions. You may have proof that Uncle Ken’s not your father, but Aunt Claudia is your mother. Don’t let your anger tear you away from the only parents you’ve ever known. Go and talk with them and hear what they have to say.”
“Talk?” He threw the wet wipe in the cup holder between us.”Talk about what? How they lied to me my whole life? I have a whole family out there that I know nothing about.” Tony pointed out the window. “You don’t play with people’s lives like that. It wasn’t their choice to make. I have a right to know who I am.” His jawline tightened.
“So, what are you going to do?” I asked once I realized he wasn’t receptive to any advice I offered.
He turned his head slowly in my direction. His eyes narrowed, and I swear they looked a lot darker than they did a minute ago. “My parents are frauds. Lying to the people out there is one thing, but to the person you’re supposed to love more than your own life? The person you’re supposed to protect. The one you’re supposed to be there for when…” He took a deep breath.
“When what?” My heart beat harder waiting for the answer, but I got nothing but silence. Five minutes of silence and deep breathing.
“That’s just not right.” He finally spoke. “I think it’s time for them to feel the consequences of their actions.” Tony’s brow lifted.
Uncle Ken and Aunt Claudia were both politicians. She was a councilwoman and he was a state representative ready to throw his name in the hat for Governor. The fact that they’re liars was no secret. It went with their occupation. A scandal of any kind could ruin their careers and reputations. They worked very hard to establish themselves as a power couple. If Tony thought they were going to allow him to tear down everything they’d built, he was wrong. This was not going to end well. I felt it in my spirit.
“Tony, think about what you’re saying. Doing something like that wouldn’t just hurt them, but a lot of other people too. The young people in this community look up to your parents, they always have.”
“Yes, because they don’t know the truth. They don’t know the real Ken and Claudia and I can’t allow them to be fooled any longer. They have everyone fooled, including you.”
I don’t know why that announcement didn’t shake me more than it did. Maybe because a part of me knew something wasn’t right about Uncle Ken and Aunt Claudia. They were too perfect and people like them always made me wonder how much was real and how much was an act. Though they may not be the people they’ve made us believe they were, they’re still family and we protect family, not destroy them. Unless the act is just that unforgivable, which would be the case between Rachel and I.
“You’re quite. I’m sure you’re wondering what I’m talking about, but believe me you’ll find out soon enough.” Tony stated, causing me to turn my attention back to him.
“Actually, my thoughts are about you. I know you want to teach your parents a lesson, but are you ready for everyone to know your business because trust me if you go for them they’re going to come for you and their swing may be a lot harder.” I paused for emphasis. “Don’t open a door to something you’re not ready to release.” I tilted my head and hoped he could fill in the spaces I’d chosen to leave blank.
He swiped a tear that was about to fall. “I don’t care about any of that. I want them to hurt the same way they’ve hurt me. As long as they don’t come out on top then I’m good.”
I couldn’t believe this was the cousin I knew and loved. I understood why he was hurt, but this was on another level. This didn’t feel like a child with paternity issues, this felt a lot deeper and a whole lot darker.
“I’m not saying they were right for hiding this from you, but what if they were trying to protect you from something?” I was grasping for anything at this point. Tony’s rage felt unfamiliar and I didn’t trust that he wouldn’t go to his parent’s and do something crazy.
“Protect me from who? My real family? Why would I need protecting from them?”
He asked the question I couldn’t answer, but there had to be a reason they decided to hide this for so long. I already knew this was going to get worse before it got better. I was prepared to be there for my cousin in any way he needed me. This tangled web that was spun so many years ago was tearing him apart, and I had no idea it would eventually wrap me in it too.