One year ago today, Bear, Otter, and the Kid came out. One year ago today things changed like I couldn't even believe. One year ago today I would have never thought I'd have three novels published, two more waiting to be published, and content with my writing work. But it all comes back to that day one year ago. It all comes back to these boys who I love with my whole heart. I've written a lot on the subject so I won't rehash it now (especially since most of you are here for the short!) So I'll simply say thank you for the past twelve months. Every part of it.
Every single part.
Every single part.
And now on to why you're probably here.
The short story below takes place a few short weeks before the flash forward epilogue of Who We Are. If you have not read the previous short BOATK short Word Of The Day, then I suggest doing so as they bookend each other. A sort of beginning and an end. Click here! to read it.
Fair warning: I teared up a few times writing this, and, as you know, I'm not a crier. Take that how you will.
Music is a big part of my writing experience. I listened to this song repeatedly while writing this short. If you'd like, listen while you are reading:
In addition, there's a teeny, tiny little surprise at the end of this post after the story. I can't wait.
A BOATK Short
By TJ Klune
For Stacey. Thanks for being my time traveling tense defying editor.
(Even if your name is slightly evil now.)
For Stacey. Thanks for being my time traveling tense defying editor.
(Even if your name is slightly evil now.)
That inner voice has both gentleness and clarity. So to get to authenticity, you really keep going down to the bone, to the honesty, and the inevitability of something.
1. THE CHOICE
“Do I really want to know why you’re suggesting getting a jumping castle?” I ask Bear and Otter, narrowing my eyes. They exchange one of those secret looks that couples do, full of smiles and memories and heat, and I am giving serious consideration to vomiting right here and now. “Because I don’t think finding out your brother and his partner have a rubber castle fetish is something an almost sixteen-year-old should ever have to know. Think about what that could do to my eternally fragile psyche. I was in therapy for nearly four years. I’d hate to have to call Eddie to tell him I’ve regressed to the mentality of a nine-year-old, even if I was pretty much the most awesome thing in your tiny little world at that age.”
Bear rolls his eyes and sits back in his chair in the kitchen of the Green Monstrosity. “If that helps you sleep at night, keep telling yourself that, Kid. And jumping castles are awesome. Ask anyone, anywhere, ever.”
“Dominic is turning twenty-two and most of the people coming are going to be cops! You know what? I changed my mind. Get the jumping castle so I can have you arrested for embarrassing the crap out of me. I’m pretty sure that’ll get you the death penalty.” God, Bear is so annoying!
“Jumping castles hold special memories for me and your brother,” Otter says, grinning at Bear like he’s the greatest thing to have ever existed. I might have to take umbrage with that.
“I so don’t want to know,” I mutter. “I don’t think I’ve recovered yet from Bear trying to fumble through the sex talk he had with me. You’d think he’d never had sex before the way that went. I’m giving very serious consideration to being a virgin for the rest of my life.”
“Hey!” he snaps at me. “Just because I didn’t know what a dental dam was when you asked, doesn’t mean you can give me shit for it. You didn’t know either.”
“You told me you thought it was some kind of sexy dental floss used to tie people down during BDSM scenes! I couldn’t take going to the dentist seriously for a year afterwards because I was convinced Dr. Kao was some kind of kinky dungeon Master.” It definitely didn’t help that he was at least four-hundred-years-old and had removed my wisdom teeth right after Bear had told me this. I was absolutely sure I’d been part of some dirty scene while I’d been under the gas.
“Maybe he is,” Otter says thoughtfully. “I could see him in all leather.” We stare at him and he scowls back at us. “What? Just because I could doesn’t mean I want to. You both are prudes. I still remember finding you two hiding in the pantry looking at the ingredients of canned tomatoes after I explained what a dental dam actually was.”
“You didn’t have to use visuals,” I grumble. “I could have done without the demonstration involving a plastic baggie and a cantaloupe. I have the most humiliating parental figures out of everyone I know. It’s like you want me to be a social outcast.”
“Your awkward teenage angst is really neat,” Bear tells me. “I’m so glad you’ve morphed into a surly adolescent. Lord knows I don’t get enough of those during the day. And you better be a virgin for the rest of your life. I will not hesitate to bust some little blonde girl’s head should she be trying to get up in your business.” He mutters about some whore named Tiffani under his breath.
“Sure, teach. No unwanted teenage pregnancies for me.” And that’s pretty much true. What with skipping grades and applying for colleges, I don’t have time for girls in any way, shape, or form. Or, if we’re being honest, boys. I haven’t quite decided what spectrum I fall into, though that’s not a conversation I’ll be having with Bear anytime soon. I figure I’m young enough that I don’t have to make up my mind about such things until I’m ready to. Or maybe never. People are too complicated. They confuse the hell out of me. Not Dom, though. He never has. Well. For the most part. There are times that I—
Nope. Not even thinking about it. Not today. Not again.
“That’s Mr. Thompson to you, Kid,” Bear says, winking at me.
I laugh, trying to distract myself. I still can’t get over the fact that Bear is an English teacher. Bear. Derrick Thompson. A teacher. It blows my mind daily to think about him standing in front of a classroom and opening his mouth and letting actual words fall into the impressionable young minds of the next generation. The world is so screwed. “You just wish I’d taken your class, Mr. Thompson,” I say. “We could have sparred back and forth on the merits of Aldous Huxley in this modern age. I would have made it rain up in your classroom and everyone would have been all like, ‘Oh, that Tyson is so awesome. I wish I could be like him one day because he’s wicked badass and he knows more than the teacher and we all love him more than life itself.’”
Bear huffs at me, affronted. “No, they would have been all like, ‘I wish that kid who looks like a faded Xerox copy of the stunningly handsome Mr. Thompson would stop talking so we could actually learn something instead of hearing blah, blah, blah.’”
“No! They would have all been like, ‘I wish Tyson would be our teacher so we didn’t have to listen to Mr. Thompson who sounds like he just started trying to learn the English language twenty minutes ago because he’s all like duh. Duh. Duh.’”
“No! They would all be like—”
“As fun as this conversation is,” Otter says, “and believe me, it’s the most fun I’ve had in at least sixteen minutes, we should probably focus on the party.”
“We’re the most fun you’ve ever had ever,” Bear says, tapping his hand against Otter’s. “You best remember that.”
He smiles at my brother and it hits his eyes. Bear told me once that with Otter, you can tell everything he’s feeling all the time, that he can’t ever hide anything. I didn’t think it was true at the time, because I figured anyone can hide something if they really wanted to. I still don’t know about that.
But he’s not. Not now. Now he’s looking at my brother like he thinks Bear hung the moon and the stars; which according to Otter, he may have. I’ve never understood how people could be so against them when they look at each other the way they do. All they’ve ever really wanted is each other (whether Bear knew it or not, but do we really need to go through all that again?) and to exist in their own little corner of the world. And they’ve gotten it, for the most part. Or, at least I hope they have.
“I remember,” Otter says quietly, reaching out to grasp Bear’s hand. Their wedding rings catch the low light as they scrape against each other. It’s nice, but it’s also getting to the point where if they keep swooning into each other’s eyes, we’re all going to drown in their saccharine sweetness as rainbows fly out their butts. I’ve got things to do today. Trust me when I say this moment, for me, is the equivalent of other kids walking in on their parents. It’s the same exact thing and it’s really gross.
So, I make it my mission to kill the moment as quickly and efficiently as possible so we can talk about my problems again. I’ve learned teenagers are the most self-centered creatures on the planet. We preen more than show dogs. “This is lovely and all,” I say, quite loudly, “but I’d really like to move forward with the next item on the agenda.” I only called this meeting because I need their funds for the party. Bear has refused to let me get a job like normal people my age, saying that he wants me to focus on school.
I don’t normally ask, but on the off chance I need money for anything, I go to Bear and Otter. We’re not rich (or, at least, I don’t think we are), but we seem to be okay. Even so, I don’t want to ask them for money for Dom’s present. I want to be able to get it on my own, with my own money. This has seemed important for me to do ever since the idea first hit my brain a few months before. (Every so often, little things like that crash into me, worming their way into my head until they’re all I can focus on. I’m pretty sure I’ve got a little OCD buried in me somewhere, but I try not to let it take over if I can. Fact: do not go online to try and diagnose yourself. You’ll end up convinced you’re far worse than you actually are. Trust me; it took Otter and me three days to convince Bear he only had the flu when he was sure that WebMD was telling him he had all the symptoms of rabies. He told us we should probably go away before he started frothing at the mouth and developed a taste for human flesh. “Have you seen Cujo?” he growled at us. “You should probably just put me down now!” I looked at Otter and said solemnly, “I’ll do it, Pa, if you’ll get me the shotgun. He’s my dog. I should be the one to put him out of his misery.” I reached over and petted Bear’s head. “You’ve been a good dog,” I told him. “The best a boy could have. I reckon I sure am going to miss you.” Otter thought I was hysterical. Bear had just thrown up again. I tried not to take that last personally.)
So instead of asking for money, I got the clearance to tutor kids in AP Chemistry and AP Calculus, seeing as how I’d taken both the year before. Bear tried to argue with me on it since I had to get his okay, but I countered with the fact that it would give me more human interaction outside of the family and that it’d probably be good for me to have better social skills since I was going to college in the fall. I may or may not have also given him that look he always falls for. He relented. But I wasn’t totally full of shit about the social skills part.
Kids at my school were unsure what to do with me. I was too young to hang out with kids taking the same classes I was, too smart for the kids my own age, too weird to be appreciated by anyone that hadn’t been around for years. I didn’t mind. Well, not much. Okay, maybe a little, because I always felt that I was under a microscope, like some kind of weird freaky-looking thing that people didn’t quite know how to categorize.
So I figured I could improve my social skills by tutoring others and also raise money at the same time so I could tell Dom I’d gotten his gift by myself. For some reason, that last thing was very important to me.
I raised the money, yeah. But the social side of it? That was a freaking nightmare. I swear I was speaking English, but my pupils didn’t seem to understand a single word that was coming out of my mouth.
I don’t speak using big words just so I sound smart. I’m not like that. I just… I don’t know. I operate on a completely different wave length, I guess. At least I know I’ll never be a teacher like Bear. How he has that much patience is beyond me. I wanted to pull my hair out ten minutes into the first session.
But, it was worth it, given that I could afford the gift. At least, I hope it’s going to be worth it, when he sees it. Is it the right thing to give him? Or is it stupid? Is it such trite sentimental bullshit that he’ll take one look at it and roll his eyes?
I shuffle through my list, trying to clear my head. It’s not working. I’m starting to feel anxious, that old feeling constricting slightly in my chest. I need this damn party to go off perfectly, or else I’m going to have a minor meltdown. I try and focus on my breathing like Eddie taught me how to do years ago when I was diagnosed as having panic attacks. Bear too, though his are often lesser in strength and frequency than mine. I didn’t want to go on medication, and Eddie is a little too Zen to write prescriptions anyway, so we tried meditation and breathing and it worked, for the most part. And it should work now. I’m not that far gone yet. I don’t have the clawing at my heart, the constricting of my throat, but it could get there. It could get there so easily. On little push and everything would get a little hazy because nothing will work right and I—
All I need to do is breathe.
In. Hold for three seconds.
I don’t want to go to the bathtub today.
Out. Hold for three seconds.
There are no earthquakes. I do not shake.
In. Hold for three seconds.
I am not having a panic attack. I am above it.
Out. Hold for three seconds.
Everything is fine. Everything is fine.
Bear and Otter see this, as they always do. And as always, they don’t speak, they don’t try and break me out of it. I know it kills Bear to see me this way and not be able to do anything, but Eddie told him it would only make it worse if he tried to interfere with my exercises. Bear’s always been my protector and I know it causes him pain to not be able to stop these stupid little moments that I have. I tried once to explain that it’s not his fault and that him just being there is all I need. I wasn’t very eloquent as my explanation came at the end of one of these attacks. I was slightly hysterical after having convinced myself that Bear was going to leave that day for whatever reason and not come back. He understood, even if I hadn’t made much sense.
Much like he understands now. He knows that, sometimes, I don’t need words. I don’t need to talk it out. I just need him to be near me while I push through it. I hear the chair scrape as he stands and soon he’s kneeling next to me, twisting the chair until I’m facing him. I look down at my hands, then glance up at him through my eyelashes. He rubs his hand down my arm and I take his fingers in my lap and begin to tug on them, something I’ve done as long as I can remember. It feels safer now. It feels like home.
“Kid,” he says gently.
“What?” I say, sounding snappish. I don’t mean to and I wince, trying to show him I’m sorry.
He looks like he’s choosing his words carefully, which, if you know Papa Bear, is a feat in and of itself. It also makes me dread the words that are going to come out of his mouth. “I know,” he says, “that Dom’s your best friend and that’s a good reason for you to want this to be perfect. But… is something else going on? You seem a little… high strung. Well, more so than usual. It’s been a while since you’ve had to do your exercises. At least that I’ve seen.” I don’t miss when he glances quickly at Otter, or the subtle shake of Otter’s head in response.
“I’m fine,” I mutter. “There’s nothing wrong. I just want his party to go well so that he has fun. That’s all.” And that’s a big, fat lie, but I don’t want him to know that.
However, he doesn’t let it go. “Kid,” he says, “what’s so different about this year than all the ones before?”
I rub my hands over my face, wondering if I should push away from the table and head outside for a bit to clear my head. This moment has been moving closer and closer and I don’t know if I’m ready to deal with it yet. Every day I look at the calendar and mark off the passing days, and it only serves to remind me of what will happen and what I cannot change, no matter how much I want it to. No matter how much I wish I could ask Dom to just go with—
No. It’s not fair to him. I can’t do that. I can’t. His life is here. He’s building it in Seafare and will continue to do so even when I’m not.
“It’s just…” I try and articulate, but it seems petty, childish. It seems beneath me that I should have these fears, that I should be feeling this way. It’s not who I am. It’s not the way I want to be. It’s not the way I was raised. I am so much bigger than this. I am so much stronger than this. Bear was better than this, and the stuff he had to go through was harder than anything I’m going through. I know nothing of sacrifice. I know nothing of pain. Not like what he had to do.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t ache with it.
Bear still waits and he’s going to want an answer sooner rather than later. One of the promises I made when I stopped going to therapy was that I would talk out these moments, that I wouldn’t let them turn into something more. I laughed it off back then, figuring that I was cured from my incredible neurosis, as even Bear seemed to have chill as he got older. I made the promise, though. It was the only way Eddie, Otter, and Bear would agree to stop the weekly sessions.
And I’d been fine. Mostly.
Puberty blows. I’m moody for no reason. I’m anxious. I’ve got hair growing in the oddest places. My voice cracks every now and then like it’s made of fragile glass. My eyebrows seem to want to make a unibrow for some reason. And I expected to shoot up at least another four or five inches, but no. Of course not. I’m a tiny, fretful, hairy dwarf and I can’t wait until I outgrow this and get on with the rest of my life. Being a teenager is not all it’s cracked up to be. I can’t wait until I hit my mid-thirties.
And still he waits. Bear never had this much patience six years ago. It’s annoying is what it is. I think about growling at him to go away, but that’ll just make things worse. My hands are tense in his. He can feel it. He has to.
I’m articulate, so why can’t I find the words? Why does it seem like I’ll shatter if I open my mouth?
In. Hold for three seconds.
You can do this.
Out. Hold for three seconds.
Tell him. Just open your mouth and tell him.
“This is it, you know?” I tell him quietly.
“What’s it, Kid?”
“Kid?” Otter asks. “Do you want me to leave so you and Bear can talk?”
I shake my head at once. “No. I need you here too, okay? You’re Otter. I need you as much as I need Bear.” And that’s true, but I still glance quickly at Bear, just to make sure that doesn’t make him mad. I don’t want him to be mad at something like that. It’s just gotten to the point in my head where they are a team, they face things together. Bear’s my brother, but Otter’s my… what? Brother? Uncle?
Bear’s not upset. I really didn’t think he would be, but that smile on his face is still comforting. He doesn’t think I see him do it, but his eyes dart over to Otter’s and they catch each other, just for a moment. It’s another one of those looks they have. It’s not something I’m privy to, the secret language they communicate with, but that’s okay. It’s not meant for me. It’s meant for them.
Otter stands from his seat at the table and moves his large frame until he’s before me. He sits on the kitchen floor, his knees bumping my shin. They’re surrounding me, letting me know they are there just by little touches. It’s almost too much. I need this to be over.
“It’s…” My voice comes out like a croak. I stop and clear my throat. I try again. “It’s stupid. I know. I keep trying to tell myself not to think like this. That it’s all for the best, that it won’t matter in the long run. That this is what I wanted, right? That this is what I want to do with my life. This is what I’ve been working toward. This is what all those late nights have been for, those times when I wanted to go to bed, but I couldn’t because there was a paper due, or a presentation I had to give.”
Bear looks like he wants to speak, but his lips thin out into a bloodless line instead. He knows I have to get this out of me, like it’s bile, like it’s poison, but it’s hard for him to hear. I have to make it better for him, to not let him doubt himself. This isn’t about him and I don’t want him to think he pushed me too far.
I look him in the eye. “And I’m okay with that, Papa Bear. It’s not that. It doesn’t have anything to do with that. If you didn’t think I could do it, then I wouldn’t have. You had faith in me and I didn’t want to let you down.”
He makes a little noise in the back of his throat and opens his mouth to speak, but it closes again and he shakes his head, his hand gripping mine tightly.
“Then what’s going on, Kid?” Otter asks, saying the words his husband cannot.
“This is… God, this is so dumb. This is just…” Say it. Breathe and just say it. “This is just the last time that I’ll be here to celebrate Dom’s birthday,” I say, the words pouring out in a rush. It feels like a damn has broken and everything comes gushing out. “I don’t know why I’m focusing on that. I don’t know why I keep thinking about that. But I do. I can’t stop. It’s like these little pinpricks of fire across my brain. Just when I think it’s done and over with, it pokes again. It burns again. It’s all there again until it’s all I can think about. And I don’t know why it’s happening now, I don’t want it to be happening now but it is. It is happening. I’m graduating in a month. I’m turning sixteen in a month. We’re moving to New Hampshire in four months. It’s what I wanted. It’s what I expected. I wanted Dartmouth. I wanted it and I got it. That’s what I should be focusing on, that’s what I should be reaching toward, but I can’t. I can’t fucking focus because all I can think about is how this fucking birthday is the last time I’m going to be here with him. Next year he’s going to turn twenty-three and I’m going to be thousands of miles away and I can’t fucking focus.”
Bear opens his mouth to speak, but Otter grabs his hand and shakes his head.
Just breathe. That’s all I need to do. That’s all this is about. All I need to do is breathe. Like I was told. Eddie taught me that I’m bigger than my fears. I’m better than my fears. Hold it in for three seconds. Let it out for three seconds. One. Two. Three.
“Because he’s going to be fine, right?” I continue, ignoring the slight, high-pitched sound of my own voice. “He’s going to be fine and it’s not even going to matter. He’s probably getting too old for someone like me, anyway. I’m just a kid, after all. I mean, my name is the Kid, after all. He’s got other things to focus on. He’s got other things to worry about. He’s a cop now. He’s got to focus on that. He’s got to focus on that so he can go home every day safe and sound. That’s what he needs to focus on. Besides, he’s got all his cop friends and all his new buddies and they’ve got to be the ones that take care of him now. They’ve got to be the ones to watch his back. I’m just some kid. I’m just…” My breath catches in my throat but I push through it. “I’m just a little guy, you know? There’s not much I can do about it.”
“Kid…” Bear starts, but then his face stutters a bit. “Tyson,” he tries again. “Why haven’t you brought this up before?”
I look at him incredulously. Hasn’t he heard a single word I’ve said? “Do you hear how I sound, Bear? I sound like I’ve got a mouthful of crazy! Of course I haven’t brought this up before. It’s ridiculous.”
His brow furrows and his jaw twitches. “And I distinctly remember a promise you made to us that you wouldn’t let things get this far. That you’d talk to us before you could start to panic.”
“I’m not panicking,” I mutter, even as my heart thuds in my chest. “I just thought…”
“You thought what?”
I look down at our hands. I touch his thumb, the knuckle between my fingers. “I just thought I could handle this.”
“That’s not part of the deal we made,” he remind mse. He sounds like he’s a bit pissed off, but trying to hold it in. That makes me feel worse, but I don’t know how to tell him that.
“Bear,” Otter says quietly, knocking his leg gently against my shin. “Let’s let him finish. Okay? We’ll figure it out, but he needs to get it all out.”
Papa Bear looks like he wants to argue and he sputters a bit, but then he deflates and nods his head. I don’t want him to pull his hand away, and I don’t think he will, but I latch on to him just in case.
“I want to go,” I tell them. It’s a truth, though I don’t know how complete it is. “I need to go.” That’s more of a truth. I don’t know if that makes it better or worse. “I know it’s a lot to ask, uprooting all our lives here. If I thought I could accomplish the same things in Seafare, I would stay. I don’t want to live anywhere else. But I have to. If I’m going to make anything of myself, I have to go. I have to see what I’m capable of. I have to see what I can do, because, Bear? Otter? I think… I think I can do a lot. I think I can make changes to the world. I think I can make it better. And I have to find out.”
“Ty, we know you can do it,” Otter says. “You know that. We’ve always believed in you. Your brother and I know that you’re going to do great things, no matter what you decide to do.”
Bear’s voice is harder. “Did Dominic say something to you? Is that what brought this on?”
I roll my eyes. “Really? What about him suggests to you he’d be petty like that? He’s all rah-rah Team Tyson like everyone else. He wouldn’t say a damn thing.” And he wouldn’t. As a matter of fact, Dom’s been pushing me more than anyone else about my future, telling me that I need to make something of myself, that I need to become someone like he didn’t. I try to tell him that of course he’s someone, because he’s someone to me, but he keeps pressing the issue. It almost hurts to hear, even if he means well.
“Why is that such a bad thing?” Otter asks, reading between my words.
I’m struggling to find the right words again. “Because… he’s… look. Bear, you’ve been here with me my whole life. Otter almost as much. And Creed and Anna and... Mrs. Paquinn.” Oh, how I wish you were here right now. “It’s all the same. But… Dom… he hasn’t been here the whole time. I... just don’t know that I’m done with him. There’s got to be more to say. He’s got to show me that…” Tears start to burn my eyes and I can’t finish.
“You want him to tell you to stay,” Bear says, having one of those flashes of insight that only he can do with me so well. Dom may be my best friend and the one I want to tell my secrets to. Otter may be the father I never had. But it’s my brother who knows me better than anyone else in the world. Maybe that’s why I’m so desperate to have him near right now. I need him to listen and say the things I won’t, even if I can’t quite face them.
“No,” I say, though it’s a lie. “I don’t know. I’m all he has. What’s he going to do without me? Who’s going to remind him to eat? Who’s going to tell him that his clothes don’t match when he tries to wear plaid and stripes at the same time? Who’s going to remind him that his phone bill is due?”
Bear and Otter exchange one of those maddening looks and I don’t know what it means. “Kid—Ty—you can’t make a decision on your future just based upon your friend,” Bear says, and for a split second, the smallest moment in time, I hate him for his words. “You’ll never get anywhere in life like that.”
My eyes snap to his. “You make decisions based upon Otter all the time.”
He shakes his head. “That’s different and you know it.”
“How? How is that any different?”
“Otter’s my husband, Kid. He’s more than just my friend.”
“That’s not fair! Maybe Dom is—” more to me too, I almost say, but I stop myself, horrified at the words even as they try to spill from my mouth. I can’t look at that now. I can’t. Not with everything else going on. “Maybe Dom is very important to me,” I finish lamely, not looking at either of them, fearing what they will see in my eyes.
“We know he is,” Otter says. “He’s important to us, too. He’s a part of this family as much as the others. You know that. But, Bear is right. You can’t decide your whole future based upon the actions of one other person, especially if that person wants the same for you that everyone else wants, including you. And Bear, Ty’s right as well. We weren’t always like this. We weren’t always a couple, but we still made decisions with each other in mind, no matter how subconscious they were.”
“That’s different,” Bear insists. “You and I… we… that’s not going to happen with Dom and Ty. They’re not going to end up like us.”
That stings and I don’t know why.
He sighs. “Look. Maybe we are coming into this too fast. Maybe Ty’s not ready yet to go to college. We can always request a deferment and stay here another year and he can go to community college or to the U of O. Hell, he can do some kind of work study or he can get a job flipping burgers.” He looks up at me. “Kid, we can do what you want to do, okay? I’m not very good at this whole parenting thing and it seems like all I’ve thought about is what I want for you. Not what you want. Not completely.”
“You’ve done just fine,” I tell him roughly. “Better than anyone ever, Papa Bear.”
He smiles, though it has a melancholic curve that I want to wipe away. “And you’re growing up. You’re just… one day you’re just going to be this… man… this great man and I know I won’t understand where time has gone.” He squeezes my hand. “I just want to do right by you, okay? I want you to be able to do what you need to, to be okay.”
And can’t you see I need you to make the decision? You can’t leave me with a choice, Bear. You can’t. You just can’t because I don’t know what I’ll choose. I’m scared of what I’ll choose. I need you to decide, and I may resent you for it, and I may even hate you for a time, but you’re my big brother and I need you to choose for me.
“Okay,” is all I say.
“But it’s not something that can wait, Kid,” he warns. “If you decide we stay here, then you need to make the decision fast. We’ll need to give Dartmouth as much time as we can. I don’t think it’ll be an issue, given how much they were drooling over you, but I don’t want to take any chances. I’ll also need to see if I can re-up my teaching contract with the school district here and pull out of the one in New Hampshire.”
“And I’ll sit around and do nothing like I always do,” Otter says, with that crooked grin on his face.
“You guys would do that for me?” I ask in a small voice, feeling like a jerk that it’s even on the table.
“I’d do anything for you,” Bear says, suddenly fierce, with that gleam in his eye that comes out every now and then when he talks about me or Otter. “You know that. And until you turn eighteen, these decisions are ones that we’ll all make. Together. After that…well…” He looks away. “We’ll see what happens after that.”
And it’s like I’m nine again, it’s like all I am is the Kid again, a know-it-all, too smart for my own good. I launch myself at him and he catches me and I babble something in his ear that doesn’t make sense, but he understands it anyway as he holds me close. This is just who we are, I guess. This is just me and Bear.
2. The Party
“You’re being kind of quiet,” Dom rumbles at me, looking over from the driver’s seat as we head toward the Green Monstrosity. “When you’re quiet, it scares me because it usually means you’re planning something and I’m going to end up in jail again.”
I snorted. “You should have seen the look on your face when I threw red paint on the security guard at the boutique. It was pretty hysterical.”
“I was still trying to get over the fact that you told me it was supposed to be a peaceful protest rally, but then you threw that water balloon and screamed ‘fur is murder’ at the top of your lungs.”
“Hey, at least that’s when you decided for sure you wanted to be a cop. Jail cells apparently offer unique perspectives. You’re welcome.” I try to keep any traces of bitterness out of my voice about his chosen profession. We haven’t exactly seen eye to eye on that. Not that he should have listened to me, anyway.
“Except for the fact that we sat next to a transvestite hooker for three hours named Diamondique, sure. It was a blast.”
I sighed, almost content. Almost. “Ah, the good old days.”
Dom reaches over and cuffs the back of my head lightly with a big hand. “For you maybe. Bear and Otter didn’t think so when they posted our bail.”
“Why do you think I called Anna first? It felt neat to be able to say I wanted to get my attorney on the phone and have her show up. She went all hardcore on all of them. Everyone was scared of her.”
“All while pulling a crying two year old,” Dom points out.
“JJ was not a happy camper,” I agree, suddenly wishing the reminiscing was over, even if Creed and Anna’s son is the coolest kid on the planet. It felt a little raw right now. I glance over surreptitiously at Dom, taking him in, trying to see if just his presence is enough to help me make up my mind. I haven’t told him yet what we talked about in the Green Monstrosity a few days ago, only because I don’t want him to know he could influence me in any way. Bear is right about one thing: I shouldn’t allow this one person to be the deciding factor on my future.
Too bad it already feels like everything rests on him.
Dom is still Dom, and I think he always will be. He’s still quiet; his voice is still a rumble, broken from all those years ago when his father murdered his mother in front of him. He told me that story when I was thirteen, only after I shouted at him for almost an hour straight because of his decision to join the Seafare Police Department. I couldn’t handle the idea that he could get hurt, that he’d be put in harm’s way every day and that I’d have to wonder and worry until he called me to put me at ease. But when he finally told me the one thing he’d kept from me? Of what he’d done to try and save his mother? I couldn’t be angry anymore. I just couldn’t, especially when he said that he just wanted to protect others so the same wouldn’t happen to other kids like him. I crawled into his lap and wept against his shoulder. I wept for him yes, and to show him I understood, but more for the pain he came from. Only Dom could take something so horrific and turn it into a positive. I remember him wiping away the tears before cupping my face and saying, “So you understand? You see why I need to do this?”
I nodded, even though I wished he wouldn’t.
“I won’t do it, Tyson. Not if I don’t have your blessing.”
And I realized he meant it, and it made me sick to my stomach, that I had such power over him, that he was willing to alter the course of his whole future just because I was scared. I couldn’t do that to him. I wouldn’t. So even though my heart hurt with it, I told him of course I would support him. Of course I understood. It was one of the few times I ever lied to him.
But he is good at his job, and it looks good on him. Dom continued to grow. And grow. And grow. Now, at twenty-two, he has a few inches on Otter, both in height and width. He is a giant and can be intimidating as all hell, both in and out of his job, though that intimidation never works on me. It’s not as if it’s a façade, it’s just that I can see the Dominic I know through all that steel and grit. I told him once he can be a hard ass all he wants, just as long as he’s not like that with me because I’ll make fun of him repeatedly to his face. He growled at me that he’d arrested people for less. I reminded him that, by that point, he’d only been a cop for like six hours and he needed to get off his high horse because I still wasn’t buying it. Then he told me that when I got my license, he was going to pull me over every chance he got, just to do it. Of course, at that point, we didn’t know that I probably wouldn’t be around him when I was able to drive.
“You’re still being quiet,” he says, touching my arm. “Everything okay?”
No. Everything’s not okay.
“It’s fine,” I say. “Just a little stressed, I guess. Finals, graduation.” I shrug. “You know, the future.”
“Do you know if you’re valedictorian yet? Or is that just the forgone conclusion?”
I smile, trying to be modest, even though it comes out sounding like bragging. “They haven’t said, though it looks like I will be. Hell, it’s great publicity for the school—someone my age graduating with a 4.30 GPA. Think of all the donations they’ll be angling for now.”
“Then there’s the fact that you got into an Ivy League school,” Dom points out.
“Yeah. There’s that.” I look out the window.
We’re almost to the Green Monstrosity.
“You know I’m proud of you, right?”
I bite my bottom lip, trying to keep myself in check. If only he knew how hard it is to hear that. It’s not as if I don’t know. I do. We just don’t say things like that to one another, not usually. Platitudes are not who we are.
But even I can’t ignore the fire that ignites in my belly at his words.
“Yeah,” I say. “I know.”
He pulls up to the curb at the Green Monstrosity. Good. It looks like no one’s home. The house should be filled with people now, waiting. I’m about to open the car door when he reaches out and grabs my hand, stopping me. I stare down at my fingers on the handle. I wait.
“Tyson,” he says.
“You haven’t even really looked at me since I picked you up.”
“I have.” I sound petulant. Defensive.
“You haven’t,” he rumbles at me. “I’ve been waiting.”
“For you to see me. What’s going on?”
Everything. “Nothing,” I say. “It’s not…”
“It’s not what?”
Damn him. “It’s nothing.” I turn to look at him and flash a smile, trying to make it as bright as humanely possible. Trying to make it so there’s no more questions. No more words. It almost works because I can see the quirk of his lips as he starts to respond, just like I know he will. I smile at him like this, he smiles back. It’s the way we are. It’s how things work.
But it starts to crumble. It starts to fade. The smile I’m expecting slides back into a frown. Now it’s awkward, me and him, sitting here just staring at each other like we’ve got all the time in the world. And doesn’t something happen then? Don’t I feel a pang in my chest, a skipping beat in my heart? My hands would be shaking if they weren’t curled tightly around the handle. My knees would be bouncing if I wasn’t concentrating so hard on keeping them still.
He has such dark eyes. He almost needs a haircut, maybe in another week or two. I’ll have to remind him. There’s a little scar, just left and below his lips. He doesn’t remember how he got it, only that it’s there. I wonder again if it came from that night, that night he screamed and wouldn’t stop screaming until his voice broke in half.
“Tyson,” he breathes. My name on his lips is like a revelation and I want to break. I want to shatter into pieces. I want to tell him things I can’t admit to myself.
“What?” I croak.
“You know I love you, right?” His eyes search mine.
“Yeah.” Because I do. I’ve known since the beginning. It’s inevitable, our word of the day, the word of our friendship.
“And you’d tell me if something was wrong?”
“I don’t…” I shake my head. “We’re best friends, right?”
“Right.” No hesitation. No looking away. “Like brothers.”
“And you trust me?”
“Then I need you to trust me now,” I say, trapping him, even though I don’t want to.
He knows. His eyes narrow. “That’s not how this works.”
I nod, though it costs me. My hands start to shake. “I’m fine. Hey, let me go get ready so we can go out for dinner, birthday boy. We don’t want to waste you turning into an old man by sitting in your car all night.” Though that sounds good to me. Every bit. Every part.
He doesn’t stop me as I open the car door this time. I take in a deep breath, the salt in the air thicker than normal. I hear the cry of seagulls, the normal sounds of traffic on the street. Somewhere, someone laughs. It’s normal. It’s the same.
I don’t stop him when he puts his arm around my shoulders as we walk up the steps. I don’t stop him when he holds me close. I put one foot in front of the other and ignore the way he smells. The grip of his hand on my shoulder lets me know we’re not done talking. Maybe it can wait. Maybe it can wait until forever. Maybe we can just turn around. Maybe we can just get back into the car and drive away and go somewhere else where I can be an almost sixteen-year-old kid with no expectations surrounding me and he can be whoever he wants to be and it will just be me and him. It’ll be the two of us against the world and we will tear it apart and carve out our own place. Things are starting to disintegrate within me and I need him to know the choice I’ve been given. I need him to make up my mind for me.
I need him to tell me to stay. To never leave his side.
I look up at him and he looks down at me and for the first time in all the years I’ve known him, that weird twinge in my heart becomes something more, something so much more that it roars in my ears. It hits me like sledgehammer to the chest and only one real thought comes to mind as I realize that I’m in love with my best friend: Bear’s going to shit himself silly when he finds out about this. It’s impossible. It can’t be like this. It’s not supposed to be like this.
I open my mouth to tell Dom everything because I can’t keep this from him. I just can’t. Then he opens the door to the Green Monstrosity. “Surprise!” everyone shouts. “Surprise!” everyone bellows.
“Surprise!” everyone screams.
“Reminds me of the party we had for you,” Creed tells me hours later. “You remember that jumping castle we had in the backyard?”
“Urgh. Don’t remind me. Bear and Otter wanted to get one for Dom as like a joke, but I think they’re weirdly kinky about jumping castles. I don’t think the guests would have appreciated a show.”
Anna gives a choking laugh from her spot next to her husband. “That is something that I could have completely gone without knowing.” Then her brow furrows. “Wait, weren’t Bear and I still dating when that party happened?”
“You are so not allowed to be jealous over something like that,” Creed says, pretending to look wounded. “Besides, you know nothing happened between them back then. At least at that point.”
“Except the falling in love with each other part.”
“Well, think of it this way,” he says. “You traded in a gay and got a huge old motherfucking stud. You upgraded, baby.”
“Daddy? What’s motherfucking?” JJ asks, appearing at his side. Like most six-year-olds, he looks a bit sticky, juice and cake and dirt smeared all over him. The fact that he’s a spitting image of his dad and uncle makes the effect slightly more amusing.
“It’s what I do to your mother,” he tells JJ with a grin.
“Creed!” Anna slaps him on the arm before leaning over, licking her thumb and wiping her son’s face. “Your daddy is in big trouble,” she tells JJ. “He’s going to be grounded later, much like you’d be if I ever hear you say that word. We don’t say that word out loud. Right, Creed?”
“Er. Right. Never, ever say motherfucker. Or balls.”
JJ nods. “Okay. I won’t say motherfucking balls.”
“I love you, dude,” Creed says, the adoration clear in his voice. I laugh until I get a glare from Anna.
JJ cackles and high-fives his father before he takes off running in a group of munchkins being led by Bear and Otter.
“You know,” I tell them, “you guys cursed around me that much when I was his age, and I turned out okay.”
Creed eyes me up and down. “Define okay.”
“I can dress myself and feed myself and walk without falling down. Most of the time.”
“Success, motherfucker!” He says it in a low voice though, so his distracted wife won’t hear him. Anna has the run of their version of the Thompson household, that’s for sure. Creed likes to pretend he still has his balls, but I’m pretty sure they were removed the moment he asked Anna to marry him last year.
We watch as Bear and Otter lead a group of kids in some game that I can’t quite figure out the rules for. Bear looks like he’s miming that he’s either a teacup or a rhinoceros with a skin disorder and Otter’s jumping up and down as if he’s excited about Bear’s status as a cup or a flaky rhino. The kids around them scream with laughter and JJ breaks through all of them and jumps into Otter’s arms, shouting, “Uncle O! Uncle O!” Otter laughs and spins him around and around and around.
“Have they talked any more about adopting?” Anna asks me, a look of fondness on her face as she watches our family.
I shrug. “A little. I don’t know if they’re ready for it yet, though. Moving across the country is taking up a lot of their time and I don’t think Bear is quite there yet. And you know as well as I do that Otter won’t push.”
“That’s not who he is,” she murmurs, a little smile on her face as JJ attempts to crawl Otter like a tree. “Bear will get there.”
“He will for Otter,” Creed says, wrapping his arm around Anna’s shoulders. “Even if he can’t do it for himself, he’ll do it for him.”
Creed’s right. He will. Bear will sacrifice anything to make Otter happy, even if it means going against what he wants for himself. But I get the feeling Bear’s focusing more so on the little boy now resting across Otter’s shoulders, than Otter right now. There’s a strange look on his face, one that I can’t quite place. It’s gone before I can make it out, and he looks back down at the other kids swarming around his legs, shouting happily.
I look around the party, waving at Alice and Jerry Thompson who’re sitting down talking with Custody Trio—Eddie, Erica and Georgia—all of whom have somehow become a part of us. They wave back, grinning at me. There are people from the Seafare Police Department, all gathered together, laughing and drinking beer. There are faculty from the school where Bear teaches, friends of Otter’s from the photography studio. Neighbors are mingled throughout and, for a moment, I pretend Mrs. P. is there too, standing next to me, telling me that she is pretty sure she wants to have relations with the police chief, but don’t tell her husband Joseph, God love him, because he’s probably eavesdropping on us right that very second as he’s wont to do. I remind myself to go see her, as it’s been a while since I’ve been to her marker. It was too hard at first, and for a long time, I stayed away. It’s gotten easier and I know she likes it when I bring flowers to see her. I have so much to tell her. Maybe I can tell her about—
“Where’s Dom?” I ask. I haven’t seen him in a while and he doesn’t seem to be in the backyard.
“Oh,” Creed says. “He went inside a bit ago with Sta—oof!”
I turn to look at him, wondering what the hell that’s all about. Creed’s rubbing his side and Anna’s glaring up at him, pulling her elbow back.
“I think he’ll be out in a bit,” Anna says to me. “Why don’t we go get something to eat? You can help me with JJ. He wants to become a vegetarian just like his Uncle Ty.”
Adults are so fucking weird. I want to find Dom, maybe to give him his present when it’s just the two of us. I’m a little embarrassed by it, to be honest, and I don’t know if he’ll like it, but it’s the first thing that I thought of and it’s the only thing that’s stuck with me.
“Sure,” I say as I look toward the Green Monstrosity. I’ll go find him in a minute.
A minute turns into ten minutes, but as soon as Anna’s distracted, rolling her eyes as JJ refuses to eat the hamburger she’s made for him (“Uncle Ty said that it’s made with hormones that’ll make me shrink! Motherfucking balls!”), I blend quietly into the crowd, stopping by the present table, piled high with gifts. I grab the square package that’s badly wrapped (I understand the math behind it what with angles and all, but wrapping presents is not exactly my forte; I think maybe I’ve used the world’s supply of scotch tape just to wrap a present the size of a book), before heading toward the house.
And it’s in these last steps, before I reach the screen door, that my decision is made. It’s in these last steps I take that I can’t imagine myself being away from him, not for any stretch of time. It’s in these last steps that I know I’ll tell Bear that I want to stay here for another year, just to find my bearings. And while that is true, the real reason I’ll stay is because of him. The real reason I’ll stay is to make sure Dom knows how I feel about him. I’ll have a whole year to convince him that he belongs to me, that I’m not just some kid who has tagged along by his side for the last six years. I’ll convince him that where he goes, I go. If he wants to stay in Seafare forever, then I will, too. I don’t need to go to school. I don’t need any of it. I just need him. When I tell him, the look of relief on his face will be such a palpable thing that I’ll wonder why there was ever really a choice at all. I don’t think about Bear and Otter’s reaction. I don’t think about their disappointment because they’ll get over it. They’ll be fine. They’ll understand. They’ll know because they have to know. They’ll have to understand.
A little voice inside tells me I’m being foolish, that I can’t make decisions that’ll affect the rest of my life just because I’ve somehow convinced myself I’m in love with my best friend. I’ll regret this moment, it says, because it’s silly to think that something like this could last, that feelings like this, so bright and new and ridiculous, could ever be returned. You’re fifteen-years-old, it says. What would he want with a kid? Because that’s who you are. That’s your name. That’s what everyone calls you and that’s what you’ll always be. The Kid.
Except that he’s never called me that. I’ve always been Tyson to him, nothing more, nothing less.
I smile as I open the sliding glass door. There are a few people inside the kitchen, but no Dom. I think about calling out to him, but I can’t trust my voice not to come out with a crack. My throat burns and my heart races. I almost drop the present I carry because my hands are clammy. I’m nervous, beyond nervous, but it’s a good feeling, an odd feeling. Like anticipation. Like hope. Like it means something. Like it means everything.
Silly little boy, it laughs. A few days ago, it wasn’t like this. A few days ago, it was school in a far off and magical place. That you’d always be friends and you’d talk every day on the phone and everything would be okay because you were going to change the world. You were going to be something. Look at you now! Oh, so like your brother. What’s changed? How can this mean anything? What are a few days?
A few days ago, I didn’t have a choice.
He’s not in the living room, and I don’t hear the creak of the floor above me, so I don’t think he’s upstairs. What’s he doing? Is this a game? Does he want me to find him?
A giggle, high and feminine, near the back hall.
A low murmur that I’d recognize anywhere.
I smile and turn the corner.
Dom’s there. At the end of the hall. Near the spare bedroom.
He’s not alone.
Stacey. A little blonde thing. I’ve met her a few times. Bear has introduced us. A teacher, like him. She likes to talk to Dom. She likes to talk to him a lot. She likes—
He’s pressed against her, her back against the wall. She giggles again. His big hand is in her hair. She’s smiling up at him as he rumbles something to her that I can’t quite make out. He’s grinning at her. The same grin he gives me. Then he leans down close. So very close. She rises up on her tiptoes. They kiss. It’s deep. Her arms go around his neck and I…
In. Hold for three seconds.
Of course, it whispers to me. Of course.
Out. Hold for three seconds.
His lips move over hers and I hear her sigh.
In. Oh, God. In. Please go in. Just another breath. Please.
In. Just fucking go in.
The ground begins to shake beneath my feet. It moves up to my heart. To my head.
She pulls away and buries her face in his neck, another shy laugh. It’s high-pitched. It’s lovely. It’s beautiful, like bells. I can see the flush in her cheeks.
Earthquake. No, please. Oh no. Oh. Oh. Please.
I can’t breathe. I can’t.
“Kid?” Stacey says, looking a bit startled. “We didn’t see you there.”
Dom’s head snaps up. He takes a quick step back. “Ty?” he asks, his voice low. His lips swollen. He licks them as if chasing the taste of her.
“I didn’t…” I say. “I didn’t mean…”
He takes a step toward me.
I take a step back.
“D-didn’t mean t-to interrupt,” I stammer out. “I j-just…”
I just came to tell you I love you. I just came to tell you that I’ll stay. I just came to—
The ground shifts again.
Stacey is embarrassed. I want to hate her. I should hate her. But I can’t. Not yet. Maybe later, but right now I can’t. She fades out and it’s as if she disappears and he’s all I see.
Something flashes across his face, something dark that I can’t put a name to and he takes another step toward me. And then another. And then another and I can’t move. I can’t move and he’s in front of me and he’s so big. He’s so big and he fills the world until everything else is gone—like it’s nothing more than a dream.
He’s almost to me and I don’t know what I’ll do when he reaches me. Just as a big hand of his, the same one that was in her hair, stretches out toward me, I snap my own hand up, smacking the present against his fingers.
“I just wanted to give you your present,” I say, not looking up at him. “It’s not much. It’s not really anything. You’ll probably hate it. I’m sorry. I can get you something else. If you don’t want it. It’s nothing. It’s nothing.”
“Ty,” he says, his fingers touching mine. “I’m sure it’s wonderful.”
Oh, how I quake. “Yeah,” I say.
“That’s so sweet,” Stacey says, a smile in her voice. She comes up on the other side of Dominic and puts a hand on his arm. He flinches, but she doesn’t notice. I do. “Why don’t you open it?”
“Maybe it should just be me and Ty—”
“No,” I say. “It’s c-cool. It’s f-f-fine.”
Claws at my throat. A vise around my heart. My breath sounds like it’s whistling up from my throat. Can’t they hear it? Can’t they hear everything?
He digs through the tape and it snaps. The paper crinkles, little blue snowmen because I couldn’t find any other wrapping paper. I should have looked harder. I should have done better.
It falls to the floor.
“Oh!” Stacey says, sounding delighted. “It’s a digital picture frame! I’ve always thought these things were so cool.” She’s trying. It sounds like she’s trying. Maybe too hard.
“You h-have to p-press the b-b-b”—breathe, goddamn you!—“the button.”
He clicks the button on the side. It sounds like a shotgun blast.
And then our life unfolds. Picture by picture. Frame by frame. It tells a story. Me and him. Every year since I was nine. Every holiday. Every birthday. Every celebration. The good days and the bad ones. It’s tells our story and it’s sequential, starting from the beginning, from that very day when he told me our friendship was inevitable, to just a few weeks ago when I fell asleep and he carried me up the stairs to my bed before going home.
It’s there. All of it is there. It’s a love letter, though I didn’t know it when I made it. Anyone can see it’s a love letter. It’s so obvious. It’s so trite. It’s so awkward. It’s nothing. It can’t be anything. He can’t know. I don’t want him to know. I can’t let him know.
“Ty,” he says, his voice coming out strangled. “This is…”
I think about snatching it out of his hands and throwing it to the floor, but I can’t. I shrug instead, taking a step back. “It’s nothing. It was cheap.” It cost everything I saved. “I had a few hours so I made it.” It took me weeks. “Don’t even worry about it.” Please go away. Please go away because I can’t stand to see that look on your face.
Because that look is breaking my heart. His eyes are bright. He’s biting his bottom lip. It looks like he’s trying to hold back. “Stacey?” he says, his voice hoarse. “Can you give me and Ty a minute?”
She looks between us, confused, but she nods.
“No,” I say quickly. “There’s no need. Just a gift, Dom. Jesus, it’s not that big of a deal. Hey, why don’t we go outside and get something to eat?”
I turn and start to walk away.
“Tyson.” His voice is a whip-crack of warning.
I look over my shoulder, but I don’t stop. “I’m h-hungry. Don’t want all the food to get e-eaten, you know?”
They follow me into the kitchen. Dom keeps trying to catch my eye. He reaches for me, but I pretend not to see it and duck behind some people. I open the sliding glass door and walk outside.
“Ty!” he calls from somewhere behind me.
“Go get a seat!” I say back to him. “I’ll get us something to eat.”
“Can you get me a veggie-burger?” Stacey asks.
“Of course. Coming up. Don’t worry, Dom. I know how you like it, so I don’t need you to tell me.” The words are bitter, but the tone isn’t. I don’t look back to see if he’s still following. I wade through crowds of people. Some call out to me. I shake hands. My back is patted. My hair is ruffled. I don’t know how they can all stand so still when everything is quaking. I don’t know how they can be so calm.
Otter stops me, a hand on my shoulder. “What are you doing?”
I school my face and hope it doesn’t crack. “Just forgot something in Dom’s car,” I say, my voice even. I don’t stammer. I don’t stutter.
“Look at me,” he says, a quiet command.
I do. It’s Otter, so I do.
“Are you okay?” he asks slowly.
“Oh, sure! I’m fine. Just don’t want to forget my shit, you know? Make Dom drive all the way back here.”
“He lives right down the road, Kid. Is it that important? We’re going to do the cake in a bit. I was hoping to get some help. This is your show, after all.”
“Hey, can you ask Bear?” I ask. “It may take me a few minutes.” Please believe me. Please believe me and go away. Otter, please.
He doesn’t believe me. “You’d tell me if something is wrong, wouldn’t you?”
I laugh, though it’s forced. “You worry too much, Otter.”
“Kinda my job,” he says with a tight smile.
“I’ll be back soon,” I promise. I just gotta get somewhere safe. Everything is falling and I have to get safe. Everyone knows you gotta get safe when there are earthquakes. Everyone knows.
“Okay,” he says reluctantly.
I can feel his eyes on my back as I round the side of the house.
By the time I hit the front door, I can’t breathe.
It’s odd, this reaction. From a distance, like I’m floating above myself held only by a string, I can see it empirically. Here lies my intelligence. Here, I can scoff at myself, for the child I really am inside. So things aren’t going the way I wanted them to. So things aren’t going the way I planned. Do they ever, really? Does anything ever really work out? And this of all things? I magically, and without warning, decide that I’m in love with a man six years my senior while I’m fifteen-years-old? So what if I’ve thought there was always something there. So what if I just couldn’t give it a name. Bear gave me a way out from my own cowardice and I ran with it like I was nothing but a child, a kid, incapable of making decisions, incapable of deciding my future for myself. And this is pain? I think this is pain? I survived my mother leaving me when I was six. I survived the death of the woman who filled her place when I was nine. After all of that, after everything I’ve been through, this is what brings me down? This is what knocks me to my knees? I deserve it, then. I deserve every part of it because if I can’t survive this then I can’t survive anything.
Empirical. Cold. Real. That’s all my mind is. Through the haze and panic, my thoughts are hard. I’m pragmatic. I am logic and I am reasonable. This is nothing. I don’t need this. I don’t want this.
Except I do, my heart whispers. Except that I do.
I may be floating and my mind may be running, but it’s my body that can’t breathe. My heart is the tether holding me to myself and it ignores all reason. It ignores rational thought. It ignores everything but the hurt and the want and the need because that’s all it knows. Now that I’ve allowed the walls to crumble, allowed myself to feel something, it won’t go back. It won’t fade. It just wants to burn.
It feels like everything is shaking when I hit the stairs, tripping on the first one, and then the second. I grab the rail and I think wildly about the first time I saw Dom, standing across the street from me, watching me, his shoelaces untied and trailing after him as he followed me down the road as I followed the ants. It was inevitable then, and it’s inevitable now.
The door to the bathroom stands open and I slide on the tile floor, almost falling. I grip the edges of the bathtub and kick the door shut behind me. Even as it feels like the room starts to collapse, and I close my eyes against the vertigo, all I can see is his smile against her lips, the way his hand went to her hair. All I can see is their mouths together as she sighed. He’s mine! I want to scream greedily. Unfairly. He’s mine and you can’t have him! Because, I know, I understand, that’s how I’ve always thought of him. That’s how I thought he’d always be. Yes, there’s me and Bear. Yeah, there’s me and Otter. But they belong to others. They belong to each other. But him? He belongs to me and that’s the way I want it. I found him. I brought him home. I kept him. He’s mine. He belongs to no one other than me.
“Ah,” I moan. “In. Just hold it in.”
But I can’t. I can’t catch my breath. With all the strength I have left, I lift myself up and over the bathtub rim and slide down into it, crashing onto the bottom, my shoulder twisting and my head rapping against the hard surface. I see cold stars for a brilliant moment, flashing across my vision, but then they’re gone and all that’s left is my constricted chest, the shaking house.
I curl up my knees to my chest and wrap my arms around my legs and wait for it to stop.
I don’t know how long I’ve been in here, but it can’t be more than minutes. My shoulder still smarts and my chest is still tight and I still can’t think clearly. I still can’t think rationally. I can’t stop shaking because I’m cold. My skin feels like ice. My teeth won’t stop chattering.
There’s a knock at the door.
Go away. Go away.
“Tyson? You in there?”
I open my mouth to tell him I’m fine, that I’ll be out shortly, but all that comes out is a weird croak. Get it together. Now. This is not you. You are better than this.
I clear my throat. I wrap my arms tighter around me. “Yeah, I’m in here,” I say, my voice high. I cough. “I’ll b-be out in a b-bit.”
Then: “What are you doing?”
“I’m in the b-b-bathroom.”
“You sound funny.”
“Thanks. Can you l-leave me alone?” My voice comes out like I’m begging and I can’t stop it.
“Your voice,” he says.
I say nothing.
“Ty?” He sounds pained. “Are you in the bathtub?”
I twist to lie on my back so my voice rises instead of hitting the sides of the tub. “No. Jesus, Bear, go away.” Leave me alone. Just leave me alone. I take a shallow breath. It hurts.
“No,” he says and I groan. “I’m not leaving until I see you.”
“I’ll be out in a minute,” I snap at him.
“That I know you. That I know you better than anyone.” He opens the door. I close my eyes and try to collapse in on myself so that I’ll just disappear. I try to stop shaking but I can’t, because I am so fucking cold.
“No,” he moans. “Ty? Oh, honey, oh please.”
It only takes him a second before he’s in the tub with me, curled up against my back, pulling me into his arms, wrapping himself around me. It’s a bit of a struggle; we don’t fit in here like we used to when I was just a little guy. But somehow, someway, he makes it work, like he always does.
“What’s wrong?” he asks me, trying to warm me. “What happened?”
The worry in his voice is almost my undoing. The anger on my behalf is almost my breaking point. God, does he know how strong he is? How solid? I am nothing like him. I am weak and scared and little. I want to be like my brother but I don’t know how. I don’t even know where to start.
“Just got a little scared, I g-guess,” I say, trying to keep my voice even. “It g-got hard to breathe.”
“Earthquakes?” he murmurs.
I nod once and grab his hand, holding it to me close. His fingers splay out against my chest. He must feel my jack-rabbiting heart.
“I’m sorry,” I say, trying to distract him, to distract myself.
“This. All of this. I thought I was better. I thought I had this under control.”
“You don’t need to apologize. Do you hear me? Ever, Kid. You don’t need to apologize ever.”
I wish I could believe him. “I don’t know how to fix me,” I whisper. “I don’t want to be like this anymore. I don’t want to be scared. I don’t want to have to come in here. I don’t want this, Bear.”
He kisses the back of my head. “I know, honey. I know. We’ll figure this out. I’ll make it all okay. Somehow.”
He sounds upset and I want to apologize again, but somehow, I keep it down. Instead, I open my mouth and make it worse. “Probably wish she’d taken me with her, huh?” There’s no question as to who I mean.
Bear stiffens behind me. “What?”
“Mom. Do you… do you wish sometimes that she took me with her when she left? It would’ve been easier for you. You wouldn’t have to deal with…all of this.”
“I’m going to say this once and only once,” he grinds out furiously. “Are you listening, Tyson?”
“Yeah,” I manage to say.
“Things may have sucked. Things may have been hard. Things may have seemed like they were dark and that we’d never make it through. But we did. Me and you. That’s all there was for the longest time and we survived. Without you, there would have been no me. Otter may have my heart, but you are my soul. So no, I don’t wish that. No, it’s never crossed my mind. No, I will never leave you and I will never let you go. You are stuck with me for the rest of your life and if you ever ask me a question like that again, I swear to God you will see me angry like you’ve never seen before. You get me?”
I can’t speak.
He shakes me. “You get me?”
“Yes. Oh. Bear. I can’t… I can’t breathe.”
“Hear me, okay? Remember what Eddie taught you. What we’re supposed to do. Just focus on me, okay?”
I nod, starting to struggle.
“In. Breathe in. Just breathe, Kid. All you need to do is breathe.”
I can’t. I can’t get the air in.
“You can,” he says, like he can hear my thoughts. “You can because I know you can. Just breathe in with me, okay?”
Somehow, I try. For him, I’ll do anything.
“Good. Hold it for three seconds. One.”
What does she have that I don’t?
I know him better. He loves me more.
“Three. Let it out with me.”
“Hold it for three seconds. One.”
Doesn’t he need me?
Why won’t he ask me to stay?
“Three. Good, Kid. In and hold. One.”
I want him to be happy.
Why can’t he be happy with just me?
“Three. And Out. Good. One.”
He sees me. He sees me like no one else can. Not even Bear.
And I see him. I see him so clearly.
“Three. Now. Tell me what happened.”
And it floods out. “I saw Stacey and Dom kissing in the hall and it felt weird to see because he should only be seeing me because he’s my friend and I found him first. He only needs to tell things to me and why can’t he see that? Why can’t he see that he should tell me everything? He didn’t tell me about her. He didn’t tell me that he liked her. He kept it from me and it feels like he lied. But I can’t blame him because look how I reacted. Look at what happened. He tried to protect me like he always does and I hate him. I hate him for it. I hate every part of him because he’s going to leave me. He’s not asking me to stay because he wants me to leave. He wants me to leave so he can go on and live his life without a little kid hanging on to him. He wants me to go so he can have a home.” I’m starting to get worked up again, knowing how harsh my words sound and, saying them aloud, how untrue they are. Nothing I’ve just said describes Dom. Nothing I’ve said is who he is. This is not on him. This is on me.
“But you don’t believe that, do you?” Bear asks, again proving he knows me better than I know myself.
“I don’t know.”
“No. Okay? No. No, I don’t believe that. I’m scared, but I don’t believe that. Not really. Not completely. It’s just all messed up in my head and I can’t focus, Bear. Why can’t I focus?” I start to pant again.
“Easy. Breathe. Just breathe.”
I do. Bear rubs my chest and I do.
“I’m scared, Bear.”
“About what, honey?”
“Everything. The future. Leaving him behind.”
“Can I be honest?”
“Me, too. I’m scared, too.”
“Why’re you scared?”
He sighs. “Because I don’t know if I’m doing right by you. I don’t know if I’m doing right by Otter. I’m worried about uprooting our lives and going clear across the country. I’m worried that I might never want what Otter wants. I’m scared that you’re going to grow up and I won’t be ready to let you go. I’m scared that you’re going to want to go live your life away from me and I don’t know if I can handle that. I don’t know if I can stand to not see you every day.”
I laugh a watery bark. “We’re just a co-dependent mess, aren’t we?”
He chuckles. “The worst. We should probably still be in therapy.”
“We’re stuck with each other, huh?”
“Yeah, Kid. Me and you.”
“Forever,” I insist.
“Yeah. Forever, Ty. We’ve made it this long, what’s the rest of our lives?”
“I never wanted to go with her. With Mom. Never. Not once. I only wanted to be here with you.”
“I know. And I’m sorry.”
There is a pause. “Introducing Stacey to Dominic. I didn’t know it would hit you that hard. I didn’t know that they’d even hit it off.”
My heart is sore, but it doesn’t matter. Not now. “It’s okay,” I whisper. “I don’t care what else happens, as long as he’s happy, you know?” And this is the truth. This is the decision, the choice I make. I’d rather have part of his heart than none of it.
Bear’s quiet, but I can tell he’s thinking hard. “Kid?”
“Do you… you and him… are you in l—" He stops himself.
“Never mind,” my brother says. “It’s not important.”
“Bear?” A voice calls from the open doorway. A low rumble that causes gooseflesh to ripple over my skin. “Can I speak with Tyson?”
Bear shifts behind me and rises up. “Now might not be the best time, Dominic,” he says, his voice tight.
“I understand that,” Dom growls. “And if you’d like, I can rephrase it so it’s me telling you instead of asking you.”
They glare at each other until I roll my eyes. “Knock it off,” I tell the both of them. “Bear, it’s okay.”
He looks down at me like he doesn’t believe me.
“It’ll just be a minute,” I tell him. “I’ve got something to tell you, anyway.” And I do. But it can wait a bit longer.
He nods and helps me sit up in the bathtub. I bring my knees to my chest as he leans down and kisses my hair. His hand trails off my shoulder as he steps out of the tub. He glances over his shoulder at me before he faces Dom. “A word, please?” he says, jerking his head toward the door.
Dom nods reluctantly and follows Bear out the bathroom.
“How much did you hear?” Bear hisses at him, trying to be quiet, but his voice echoes off the tile in the bathroom.
“Enough,” Dom rumbles. “Enough to know…”
“It doesn’t matter what you know. It doesn’t matter what you think. All that matters is my brother in there. All that matters is that he’s fifteen-years-old and still feels earthquakes. That’s the only thing that matters.”
“I’ll give you five minutes, Dom. Five. Don’t you upset him again or you and me are going to have a problem.”
Overprotective, Bear is. I hear him stomp away.
He turns into the bathroom and walks toward me until he kneels at the side of the tub, resting his hands on the edge. He drops his head until his chin hits the back of his hands and we’re eye level. I don’t look away.
“I didn’t mean for you to see that,” he says finally. “Downstairs.”
I snort. “That’s… I don’t know what that is.”
“It just happened.”
“It looks like it’s been happening.” I wait for him to deny it so I can call him on it.
He doesn’t. “Yeah,” is all he says.
“Do you love her?”
He looks startled. “What?”
“Do you love her?”
“I’ve only known her a couple weeks.”
I cock my head at him. “What does that have to do with anything?”
He smiles at me, like I’ve amused him. “No, Ty. I don’t love her.”
“Because. She’s not…I already have…” He sighs. “It’s not important.”
“But it could be.”
He shrugs. “I don’t know, Tyson.”
“You should still see her,” I tell him, though my heart breaks.
“Because she makes you smile.”
“A lot of things make me smile. Doesn’t mean I need them. I won’t, Ty. I won’t do it again. I won’t see her again.”
“Because I don’t want it to lead to this,” he says, patting the bathtub. “I can’t let this happen to you. Not again. Not under my watch.”
Instantly, I feel like the world’s biggest asshole. How could I have ever thought he didn’t love me? How could I have ever thought that he’d sacrifice nothing for me? That’s not who Dom is. Dom has given me everything. The least I can do is deserve it. “No,” I say. “You don’t get to do this. Not because of me.”
“Ty, I’ve already made up my—”
“These are my problems, not yours,” I interrupt. I reach out and touch his face. He closes his eyes. “You don’t have to put up with my stupid shit.”
He catches my hand in his and holds on. “I don’t have to do anything. Every choice I make is my own. And it’s been that way ever since I saw you on that sidewalk, following the ant you named Helmholtz Watson. That was the day I felt like I had choices again; for the first time in a long time. And you know what I chose?”
He opens his eyes to look at me. “I chose you. Right then and there, I chose you.”
“I promised myself that I would do everything to make you happy, that I would do anything to make you feel safe. You want to know why I haven’t asked you to stay? You want to know why I haven’t asked you not to go even though every part of me is screaming to lock you up and never let you out?”
I shake my head as my eyes start to burn.
“Because,” he says harshly, “because I know you. I know what you’re capable of. I know what you’re going to become. You are going to make the world so much brighter because you’ve already done the same for me. And it’s selfish of me to want to keep that to myself. It’s selfish of me to want no one else to see it. You’ve got a gift, Ty, and you need to share it with the world. You’re my best friend and you always will be, but I can’t be the thing that holds you back. I won’t be. So you’re going. You are going so everyone else can know what I already know. Do you understand?”
“Y-yeah. Yes. Yes.”
He deflates and bows his head, burying his face in his hands. I touch his hair. His ears. Bear may be my rock but Dom is the force that moves me.
He drops his hands to his lap. He doesn’t raise his head. “You said you hated me,” he whispers. “Please don’t hate me. I couldn’t stand it if you did.”
“I don’t. I didn’t mean it.” Out of everything that’s been said, it’s those words I wish I could take back. “I can’t hate you. I won’t. You’re my… you’re Dom. How can I hate you when I love you?” And as those words come out of my mouth, the meaning behind them changes into something so completely different then they had ever meant before.
“I don’t need any other home,” he tells me roughly. “I don’t need any other home than you, so you don’t ever forget that, you hear me? You don’t ever forget me. You can’t. You just can’t.”
As if I could. As if I could ever want to. I jump out at him and he drags me from the bathtub and curls me up against his chest where a great heart beats a staccato rhythm. And we sit here, in the waning afternoon, just me and him. For a time, it doesn’t matter what’s happened before. It doesn’t matter what’s coming. All that matters is Dom is who I need him to be and I pray that I can be the same for him.
After a while, he says, “The present.”
“Yeah?” I close my eyes and breathe him in.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever gotten.”
“Yeah?” My chest feels warm again.
“Yes. Thank you, Ty. It’ll help me.”
“When you’re gone.”
“Who’s going to tell you what to wear?” I sniff. “You can’t match clothes to save your life.”
Stacey will help him, it whispers to me, but I shove it away.
“I guess I’ll have to call you every day,” he says with a huff of laughter. It almost sounds like a sob.
“I’m going to come back.”
“I will,” I insist. I pull away to look at him. He won’t meet my eyes. “Dom. Look at me.”
He does, but there’s doubt there. He can’t hide it from me. “I don’t…” He shakes his head.
“You’ll see. I promise.” I lean back against him. “You’re my best friend, too, Dom. You’ll see.”
“I know, Ty.”
“Do you know why?”
“You and me?”
“Yeah?” He holds me tighter.
I hug him back. “We’re inevitable.”
And we sit there for a while longer until the earth no longer shakes. Until we can stand without falling over. Until we can face the world with a decision made, though it is breaking our hearts.
I find Bear and Otter outside, away from everyone else. They stop talking as soon as they see me, and I can tell they were talking about me. They both look worried, and I can’t have that. I’m stronger. I will be stronger. I’ll show them. I’ll show everyone.
Otter reaches for me first and I wrap my arms around his waist. Bear comes up next to him and rests his hand on my shoulder and leans against his husband. “Okay, Kid?” Otter asks.
I nod. Maybe not all the way okay. But I will be. One day, I will be. “I’ve made up my mind,” I tell them, my voice strong.
Bear glances over at Dom who is standing near the Green Monstrosity, waiting for me. We’ve decided to get out of here for a bit, just me and him. “And what do you want to do?” Bear asks.
“We’re going,” I say. “We’re leaving Seafare.”
They glance at each other over me. “You sure?” Otter asks after a moment.
I nod. “I have to. I need to. For me. Is that okay?”
“More than okay,” Bear says. And then he smiles.
Dom and I walk along our little section of the beach, the tide low, the whitecaps of the waves foamy and small. Seagulls cry out overhead. The wind has a bite to it. Mrs. P feels close, like she always does when I’m here. Dom drops his arm on my shoulder but he doesn’t speak. He doesn’t have to. We’ve already said everything that needs to be said, at least for now. All we do is walk. All we do is hold on while we still have time.
All we do is breathe.
Last Christmas, the Kid told an epically bad poem (click here!) of the battle against the dark underlord, Santa/Satan. In the end, the mighty vegetarian, with the assistance of his animal friends, emerged victorious and the Devil was cast back into the pit of hell. But even as he fell into the fiery depths, Satan swore he would return one day to wreak havoc and exact his revenge....
On November 17th, 2012, evil will rise again as ten-year-old Tyson "the Kid" Thompson faces his greatest foe in:
‘TWAS A FEW DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS
PART II: DIE, SATAN, DIE
A HEARTWARMING BOATK HOLIDAY POEM
(complete with illustrations--very, very bad illustrations)
THIS CHRISTMAS, WE'LL MAKE THE YULETIDE PAY