Henry Briles had a reputation for being late. It started, he figured, when he showed up tardy every day for two months to Mrs. Wilkes's first-grade classroom at Oak Elementary. Which-all things considered-was a little unfair, Henry often said. If anyone were to blame, he believed it should have been his mother. After all, she was the one who drank through the night and overslept the alarm every day for two months after his father left them.
Sometimes little Henry Briles sat in a confused sort of anger after being courted to the principal's office, tardy slip in hand, because he didn't know who to blame.
His mother for drinking.
Or his father for making her that way.
Because even six-year-old Henry understood life wasn't so simple.
But he had to blame someone, and he chose his mother because at least she was there. He didn't see the point in blaming someone who didn't know.
Later in life, he would think he made the wrong decision. Maybe life would have been easier if he hadn't have blamed anyone at all.
Whatever the case, Henry grew into his reputation. He could remember showing up late to his academic team's state championship match in the eleventh grade. The next year he was an almost no-show to his high-school graduation-the first Valedictorian to be so in Oak High's 100-year history.
Later on, Henry would feel at home at the University of Georgia. As students around him acclimated to their new-found freedom by showing up late-or not all—to class, Henry cruised through his freshman year propelled by a lifetime of experience.
That's not to say Henry never tried to be on time, of course. He was attracted to rules, to convictions, and discovered he had a growing distaste for the flagrant disregard of both he found in Athens. Feeling his punctuality a bit uncouth itself, Henry made a concerted effort his senior year to correct himself.
It appeared to have worked. A relieved Henry traveled back to Oak, Georgia (now population twenty-seven thousand and one) and used his new-found cultivation to land his first gig as a Sports Writer for The Oak Herald Chronicle.
A year in and Mr. Briles, Oak Herald Chronicle, was the proud owner of a 2018 Chevy Impala and a three-bedroom, two-bath house in the country.
But there was one thing Henry, now twenty-three, had yet to achieve.
Despite the progress he had made, Henry was consciously aware of both his romantic and sexual inexperience. He did everything he could to hide the fact that he'd never even had his first kiss.
And to hide that he wanted a boyfriend.
Oak, Georgia was not Athens, and there were just some things you couldn't say.
Henry, returning from UGA emboldened by the population's liberal stance on homosexuality, was reminded of this one late spring night he tried to come out to his mother.
She was standing by the stove in the kitchen, stirring a simmering pot of spaghetti sauce. Her long, brown hair was pulled back in a pony-tail-a style she often wore when he was a child. And as he stood there watching her scrape her ladle across the insides of the pot (that's where all the flavor goes), he felt flooded with an overwhelming desire to tell her.
"Mom," he had started, taking a step into their dimly-lit kitchen.
But as she turned to face him, he felt his pocket vibrate. It was a number he didn't recognize.
"Henry Briles?" It was a man.
"I'm Derek from the Oak Herald Chronicle."
And as he stood scheduling his interview for 'this Friday,' all he could think about were the words he could now see printed on his mom's apron.
"Beer is proof that God loves us."
He barely had time to hang up the phone.
A thick, South Georgian drawl. "You got a job interview? Where at?"
His mother's voice brought him back to reality.
A news reporter couldn't be gay. Not in Oak, Georgia. So Henry simply said, "The newspaper. This Friday."
He had gotten the job rather easily-too easily, really-and for the next year Henry had kept his mouth shut. He had no intention of coming out and was more-or-less okay with it. For the first time in his life, he had a house, money, a car, and even a job he didn't hate. Maybe even a job he liked.
But Henry had forgotten the lesson his six-year-old-self knew so well.
Life's not so simple.
Sometimes, he would learn, what we have in life leads us to situations we never expect. Henry, for one, couldn't have guessed that he would soon fall for Oak High's star baseball player.
And who would be to blame for that?