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Chapter 9 "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"
I suppose there have been worse nights and worse dates, but I couldn't think of any others off-hand, so this one was going to be my reference point for a long time. I was standing there in the cold, and the numbness that set in on the long drive home enveloped me. I'd gotten out of Jamie's car slamming the door and walked over to his side, watching him roll down the window, and I took a final shot.
"If you get lonely tonight, maybe you can call up Jeremy and you an' him can set up something with that Rurak guy over in Methuen." I kicked the car, hard. And kicked it again.
I saw the muscles on Jamie's jaw tighten, and he glared at me with an expression halfway between sorrow and anger. Then I stepped back with my hands stuffed in my jacket pockets, and watched as he backed out of the driveway. He shifted into drive, gunned the engine and took off.
In the movies, they always have that little scene where the character that's going away stops and looks back, just for a moment. He raises a hand in a halting goodbye, with a sad smile on his lips -- just enough to tell you that it's okay, and maybe there'll be another chance. There's hope, or at least enough hope to let you get through the night. But Jamie... he just drove off and never looked back. I know: I watched him until the car disappeared into a right turn at the end of my block, and I heard the echo of Vicky's engine fade away.
I wasn't sure what to do. I couldn't go in the house; my mother would take one look at me and freak. And my dad... well, I've told you about him. He acts first and thinks later. One look at me and...
I had no place to go. Except...
It was freezing out here, so I couldn't just stand around and think it over. Finally I decided to head for my car, at least I could sit there - or would have, if the damn thing weren't covered in a shell of ice. I kicked it as hard as I could and swore, both because it didn't do any good and because of the instant stab of pain that ran up to my thigh. I was ready to break down then and there.
It did surprise me though, the way he appeared at the door: my dad. He just stood there, not even turning on the porch light. I couldn't see his face really, since he was so heavily backlit. I just recognized his shape and voice. Besides, who else would be at my house besides him? It just wasn't like him to check up on me.
"Is everything all right, Chris?" he asked, leaning out the door.
I made sure I was still in the shadows, on the edge of the driveway. I continued trying to look casual, breaking up the ice on my car again, keeping my back to him. I fought to keep my voice steady, to keep myself steady.
"Yeah, Dad. Just stopping off to pick up the car. It...it'll just make things easier in the morning."
"You'll be at Jamie's, then? That's what your mother said. I thought I heard you shouting." His voice had a strange tone to it, but I didn't really read into it. Had he heard Jamie and me? Just how much did he hear? Was it concern I heard, or something else?
I sighed. I didn't want to get into it just now. I didn't want another drama to play out. I'd had enough for one Sunday. Suddenly out to my mom, and then - all the crap.
Lying seemed the easiest way out.
"Yeah, I'll be staying over there tonight, Dad," I said, as another big chunk of ice cracked and splintered under my fist. "We'll be heading into Boston in the morning. Prob'ly won't get home 'til evening. We'll see, okay?"
Part of me was desperate. I didn't want him to turn on the porch light and get a look at me. Fortunately my car was parked at the edge of the driveway, a little bit onto the far side of the lawn and away from the house, so my parents could get their cars in and out without having to bother with moving mine. No on-street parking this time of year. Tonight would be a bad night, anyway. The sleet had turned into more of an ice storm the closer we got to Haverhill, and it clung to the ground. The roads were slick, and the sanders weren't out yet, or at least not in our neighborhood. A lot of people who've spent their entire lives in New England seem to forget every winter that you can't stop fast on iced-up roads, and I'd already seen a few crack-ups on the drive back from Salem. Most of 'em involved parked cars, piled into by idiots who slammed on their brakes. I think the four-wheel drive SUV morons were the worst. They didn't seem to distinguish between snowy roads and iced up roads, and that it didn't make any difference how many wheels drove when you skidded on ice. Just a bigger crunch into the side of whoever found themselves the victims of these idiots who poured out big-bucks for the prestige of driving an over-weight vehicle designed for off-road use whose idea of a rough ride was a pothole on the Interstate.
I kept my back to him, and started pounding on the glass with my left hand to break up the ice. It would have made more sense to get in and start the car, but if I did that I'd have turn towards him, and the dome light in my Tercel would light me up enough so that he'd see my ripped coat and... well, the rest of me.
"Okay, kid. Just take it easy on the road. Lot of assholes out there who don't know how to maneuver in this stuff. And call when you get there, ok? So your mother doesn't worry," he added, and I smiled. Yeah, my mother won't worry. Or you, for that matter. His voice told me that, even if his words didn't. Thanks, dad. Thanks for caring, even if you can't say it.
I heard the aluminum storm door wheezing shut, and I was almost free, when I heard it snap open again. "You got your phone with you? Just in case, you know. Still got some minutes left?"
Lucky for me I did. I'd learned after the first month just how expensive a cell phone could be when you went over your contract limit at the wrong time, and hadn't made that mistake since. He'd given me the phone and bought a few hours for me up front, but if I went over I had to make up the difference, and if I didn't pay he'd just shut me down. He'd given it to me for emergencies, since I drove a ten-year-old car and covered a fair distance back and forth to work, a lot of it at night.
"Yeah - no sweat, Dad," I said, and continued pounding. Now go back into the house so I can get in this thing and start the heater so I can get the ice off, I thought. Oh, yeah, and before I freeze to death, too.
I listened to the pump slowly edging the door closed, and then the final THUNK as it just slammed the last four inches, followed by the sound of the front door closing. I stole a glance back at the house. He was standing in the doorway, watching me through the window. The outer glass was crusted with ice, so he couldn't see me that well, or I hoped not. I fished out my keys, cursed the lock when it wouldn't budge, and pounded the side panel with my good hand. It finally gave and the ice coating splintered as the door creaked open, and I slid inside, careful to reach up and kill the dome light. Unlike Jamie's Ford, my Toyota turns over and catches in any kind of weather, no sweat. The heater sucked, but the car always started.
I sat for a few minutes, letting the engine idle, and eventually I saw my father leave his spot in the window. I fished out the scraper, and flicked away the rest of the ice from the windshield as fast as I could, hoping he still couldn't get a good look at me. I shivered, holding my arms around me, waiting for the car to warm up a little. I glanced into the rearview, and caught sight of myself: just enough light to see the split lip, and the swelling eye. I shook my head, then edged back into the street, slowly. I was starting to shake again, but not just from the cold. I was scared; more scared than I'd ever been.
Stay alert, Chris. Focus on the road. Forget the rest, at least for right now. Now, where? Yeah, like I had a choice. There was only one place for me to go: I had to get to David's. He was the only one left; the only one safe. I carefully flipped open the center console, and pulled out my phone, intending to call David. I knew he'd be home.
Dammit, dead battery. Just have to hope. I needed a place.
Usually I'd take the less-used roads to get to the edge of town where David lived, but tonight I kept to the main streets as much as I could. The sanders would hit these first, and the roads would be easier to manage. I maneuvered carefully, focusing my eyes on the road, and the road only. Don't think, I told myself. There's just the road and where you're going. That's all there is right now. Concentrate on the road.
I didn't switch on the radio - never do, when driving conditions are bad. Don't ask me why, but there's a part of me that's convinced I can actually see better when there's total silence, and tonight I needed to see very well. Finally I heard the reassuring sound of slush from the melted ice flashing up from the wheel wells, and the slight sway from the back of the car diminished. The mix of sand and salt was doing its best to keep the ice melted, and even if it was also eating the body of my car at the same time, it was worth it for the reassurance that gritty sound brought. I could relax a little now.
After ten minutes, I felt I could handle the radio. I reached forward with my right arm and - damn! That hurt. I glanced down. My arm was a mess, and the sleeve of my new leather jacket was ripped down the side. I leaned forward, my arm half extended. The pain in my side was still bad, but at least I wasn't forcing myself to stand like there was nothing wrong. I gingerly reached again for the radio, leaning my body forward and more slowly this time, and flicked the switch that would bring me one of the "oldies" rock stations in the area. I wasn't in the mood for top forty, or alternative rock, or any of the damn hip-hop/rap crud. I wanted something easy, peaceful. Sunday nights, the oldies stations played a lot of that stuff from the seventies - not the loud disco or anything like that, but some of the soothing, mellow stuff. I was in the mood for that right now, that was for sure. I needed to distract myself. I flicked the station over to The River and hit the 'on' switch.
I rubbed my chest, which still ached, and my fingertips felt the stiffness of my shirt. Jesus, I thought. Did the blood dry or freeze? Naw, it had to have dried. Even with my lousy heater it wouldn't stay frozen. Not with my body heat behind it. I must look a mess, I thought. If my father had seen me at the house, it would have been all over. One look at the ripped-open jacket, the blood and bruises on my face, not to mention the blood all over my shirt, and he'd have gone off the walls. Then there would have been the other bruises under the shirt when they made me strip that off. Size thirteen Sketchers pack an awful wallop when their owner starts to kick. I was lucky: they'd only connected in my stomach and on my side and thigh. A little higher and I was certain I'd have had a few broken ribs. Oh, yeah. No question about it, this had been one hell of a night.
Then I had to pull over. I was gonna lose it. The commercial on the
radio faded, the DJ spoke in that low-key, half-muffled voice all those
guys working night shift at adult radio stations have, and the next song
came on. I only heard a couple of chords and I could feel the tears welling
in my eyes. I knew this song. My father played it a lot; the singer was
high on his list and this was one of his favorite cuts. It was a lot better
without the scratching and hissing of old vinyl, but I wasn't really appreciating
the quality of the recording just then. I was trying to get to the side
of the road that I couldn't see because of the tears in my eyes.
Been away, haven't seen you in awhile
How've you been? Have you changed your style?
And do you think that we've grown up differently?
Don't seem the same, seems you've lost your feel for me.
So let's leave it alone...
'Cause we can't see eye-to-eye...
There ain't no good guys,
There ain't no bad guys
There's only you and me
And we just disagree.
I reached down to kill the radio. That was us. That was Jamie and me. There ain't a good guy. There ain't a bad guy. Just him and me, and we just disagree.
Still didn't make it hurt any less.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I'm not sure how long I sat there by the side of the road, staring at my wipers. For sure, no one else was dumb enough to be out. I think even the cops were sitting in the Dunkin' Donuts parking lot, but that's nothing new. Cops. Just now, I didn't have any use for cops. Or newspapers. Or...
Or any use for a lot of things and people, and even myself.
I set the car back into gear, and made my way slowly to David's. It wasn't bad until the end, when I had to turn off into the narrow, semi-rural road that would take me to the Sciuoto house. The sanders hadn't been by here yet; probably wouldn't get here for hours. It was a small street with only a few houses on it, and even if the houses belonged to well-connected and monied people, they'd have to wait their turn. Haverhill only had so much money in the budget, and it wasn't a real rich town. The sanders would be there by morning, but no time soon. Jesus, why was I so concerned about the sanders? 'Cuz its dumb, and it fills the mind, and sends the heavy stuff away for just a little while.
The drive... and turning in, the sound of my wheels crunching over the uneven ice. There's a light on in the living room, I can see it. Then a body in the window, followed by another. I know it's not David's parents, they're gone for the long Veteran's Day weekend. Must be David, and Alan. Had to be Alan. Jesus, I was breaking up their night now. Maybe it was the night David was looking forward to, when he'd have that special talk with Alan and... Maybe I should back out and just drive away, but where? I didn't have anywhere else.
The door opened and David was standing there in sweat pants and shirt, waving me forward. Alan was just behind him, but he looked like he was only in shorts and a tee shirt. Looked to be settled in for the night, the two of them. David wrapped his arms around himself and sprinted out to the car. He nearly lost his footing and slid clumsily. I watched his breath, and then I noticed he only had thin slippers on his feet. The damn fool must be freezing.
He stopped, maybe ten feet from the car, when I stepped out and Alan threw on the spotlights in the drive before he flew out of the house. David saw my face, the bloody shirt, and the ripped-up jacket. He froze. His body language went from a mix of concern and pleasure to see me, to a dead, cold anger. His voice had an edge colder than the night.
"He did this? Jamie?" he spat the name. "I'll contract him, I swear! I'll call my uncle and - "
I shook my head. "No, Dave... don't. Can... can I just come in?" I was confused, scared, and tired. I didn't want any more trouble; I didn't need any more. Not tonight.
Alan drew up closer. He hadn't been able to see me that well from the door, but as he drew closer I saw his face flicker from a smile to a dead, clinical look. He spoke to Dave.
"Davey, get him in the house. He's in shock, and he's hurt more than what you can see. I don't know how the fuck he even drove here."
Alan slipped his shoulder under my good arm. I guess he knew I was hurt in the side, maybe by the way I stood. I remembered Dave telling me... poor Alan got stomped on a regular basis at school. He was probably an expert on the body English of pain. David kicked my car door shut, and I leaned on Alan and he helped me limp into the house. It sunk in that he was only in shorts, and I tried to tell him to get inside and I'd make it on my own.
"Shut-up," was the only reply, so I let him lead me. David tailed us, maybe waiting to catch me if I fell back and poor, skinny little Alan went over with me. I stopped before we reached the porch and spat, realized it was red when it hit the white, crusty ice. Jesus, what else was bleeding?
Then I noticed something about Alan, and I began to giggle stupidly. I'd never seen him in shorts or a tee shirt before, just fully dressed.
Hairy little twerp, I thought. Christ, his arms and legs are almost like a pelt! Wonder if David has to brush him out like a cat once a week?
We got into the house, and David slammed the door beside us. I could feel Alan shivering, and David was stamping his feet to get the circulation going. Me, I didn't feel anything. Just numb.
"My parents. Gotta call 'em."
David nodded, "I'll do it for ya."
I nodded, he's thinking of a reason why he was calling them, not me. "I'm at Jamie's, got that?"
David nodded. "Yeah, I got it, C. I just came by, and with the storm and all, I'll be staying over 'cuz the roads suck. And I'm calling on my cell 'cuz the lines are out at the Cayman's. So much for caller ID."
Alan said something to David, but I wasn't paying any attention. I was looking over to the television, one of those big projection screen jobs. They had a movie on. Casablanca, I thought. Good choice tonight. David ran up the stairs, and Alan began peeling my coat off. I tried to help, but a stab of pain went up my arm, and he had to just sort of ease it off my shoulders and let it drop. I looked down at it - brand new, a hundred fifty bucks. Trash, now. The right sleeve was ripped-out at the seam, and the leather shredded down the lower arm. The front had rips and tears, too. Useless. Didn't even get a full night out of it.
He helped me to the stairs, and at the top David showed up again, and he helped Alan get me down the hall. Damn, I hurt. I didn't realize how much I hurt on the drive over here, or standing in the driveway - first with Jamie, then my father. Alan and Dave got me into the bathroom. Not David's, I realized after awhile; much larger, more lavishly appointed. Must be his parents' bath, I thought. Oh cool, Dave was filling the tub, a large Jacuzzi. Maybe the three of us could have a party, I thought, and began to giggle.
Meanwhile, they were easing off my shirt, and David got a look at the massive bruise on my side, where I'd been kicked. It was several shades of green and deep purple.
"Just tell me this wasn't Jamie, Chris," he said calmly. "Nothing else. No other questions."
I shook my head. "No. Jamie would never hurt me." My voice sounded weak, distant. It was like hearing someone else speaking from the far side of a room.
David was loosening my pants, telling me to kick them off. In seconds, I was sitting on the edge of the bathtub, completely naked, but not caring. Alan came back with a face cloth, and began to swab gently at my face. He brought some other things with him, too. Peroxide. Antiseptic and a tube of something or other. Alan looked closely at my left eye, which was badly bruised, and nodded.
"Just surface scrapes," he said to David. "It's all the dried blood that makes it look bad. Little bacitricin will help it heal and keep it flexible, so you don't scratch at it. Gonna have a little shiner, but not too bad. Be gone in a couple days."
"You a doctor now, Alan?" I asked, half-heartedly attempting to grin. The pain instantly made it a grimace.
He smiled, poured some antiseptic onto a cotton wad. "This is gonna sting a little," he gently warned.
"Told ya so," he said. "No, not a doctor. But I've sorta had to be a nurse now and then." Then to David, "Get the jets going on that thing and help ease him in. Careful he doesn't slip; he's still not too steady on his feet. Make him ease back."
David helped me in, and I let out a sigh as I sat in the bubbling water, which was about as hot as I could stand. The jets whirred around me, and the pain in my side flared for a few seconds, but then it began to feel good, and I relaxed. David continued cleaning my face with the washcloth, and I noticed how red it got. Christ, who'd've thought I had so much blood in me? My nose - yeah, I saw the mess on my shirt long ago, but I thought I'd wiped my face clean. By the looks of things, all I'd managed to do was smear it around.
"Is it broken?" I asked, fearing the worse.
"Is what broken?"
"My nose!" I said, exasperated.
He smiled. "Jesus, I hope not. Size of that thing, you'd need a squad of plastic surgeons, not just a team."
"No swelling," Alan said, touching the tip gingerly. "I don't think it's broken. You'd be moaning a shit-load more if it was."
David sniggered. "He doesn't moan. He whines. And bitches - let's not forget the bitching."
"You're still an asshole. Just a bigger one." I did smile, though.
David smirked. "He must be coming out of it. That gutter he calls a mouth is workin' again."
Alan noticed his shirt was getting soaked from a combination of the water spray and my blood, and stripped it off, turning to get another towel. I was about to make a joke about how they should pile in for an orgy, but I froze when I saw his back, forgetting my own problems. Alan didn't have a pelt. No hair at all, even on his chest, which I thought was strange considering his arms and legs. But I saw something else on his back, and that made my head spin. It was covered with marks, hundreds of little scars.
I'd seen marks like that once, back in junior high. A state social worker came in and gave a lecture on child abuse. She'd shown slides of a child. His back had been covered with marks exactly like this. They were the kind of wounds an appliance cord made on human flesh when it was used as a whip. The lesions were shown bloody and fresh. Photos from a year later showed a series of long, regular white scars that furrowed the skin. That was how they healed over and looked - a year later. The marks were identical to what I saw on Alan's back.
I jerked forward, almost spoke - then David put his hand on my chest, and he shook his head. I saw the answer in his eyes, though. I began to understand Alan a little more just then; why he was so reluctant to report a beating at school. I understood why he knew how a bruise could be harmless or painful, how a cut would or would not need stitches. Alan had learned to doctor himself, and learned to hide the evidence. He didn't want anyone else to see the evidence, certainly not a school official. I wondered how the hell he made it through Phys Ed without being discovered. Someone must have seen in the showers... someone had to have seen... and even if he went to a private school, someone would have to question...
On the other hand, Alan was resourceful. He was also the school queer, so he kept away from those places, and if he didn't, he was shunned anyway.
Alan finished giving my face a sponge bath, and sat back from the spray. I noticed something about his right hand, too. The pinkie was always at an angle to all the others, and seemed to be... twisted?
"Why don't you get him something to change into, Dave? And could you maybe lend me a sweatshirt?"
"Sure," said David as he hurried into the next room.
Alan sat on the side of the tub. "You gonna be ok? You didn't lose consciousness, did you?"
I shook my head.
His face was devoid of any emotion as he took in how I had cleaned up. He inspected my eye again, and nodded. He took my arm and slowly worked it up and down. I winced, but the hot bath had helped. Then he ran his hand over my thigh, where I had taken a hard kick. I flinched a bit, more of a reflex by now, but it didn't ache as much anymore.
"I think you're going to be okay," he said. "Nothing's broken - he connected too low to get your ribs. There'll be some swelling on your right eye, but that'll go down by tomorrow, and the discoloration won't last more than a couple days. Oh, and the nose ain't broken. But you might consider getting' it bobbed some day, ok?" He grinned, and I gave him a playful swat. "I already told David to shut up. When you're ready to talk, we'll be ready to listen, 'kay?"
Alan's hand was on my shoulder, and I looked into those hazel eyes of his. I saw... compassion? I guess that's the word. I could only guess at what this kid went through every day. How many times did you have to look in a mirror at something before you began to know how long a bruise would be livid, or to know when a swelling would go down? How did you become an expert at cleaning out cuts? He could test for rib breaks and fractures. He knew my arm was just twisted and sprained, not dislocated.
As he dried me with a large, fluffy towel, I sat there in stunned silence. What kind of life do you lead, Alan? Is pain so much a part of your life you don't fight back just because you're so used to it? Is that why you prefer to be ignored, because being ignored doesn't hurt, at least? I wondered how I'd react to being ignored day after day, except when I served a purpose... like being a punching bag... at home and at school. With that kind of life, how can you possibly stay sweet inside, Alan?
The answer came back into the room, holding a change of clothes for me and a dry sweatshirt for Alan. The kid's eyes never left David as he stepped back from us. He watched every move David made with the calculated deliberateness of a mother cat watching her kitten. It wasn't lust, or anything like that. It wasn't obsession. I'm not sure what it was, but it was just something so intense you could feel it. Alan would do anything for David. I began to understand why David was so careful about how his relationship with Alan progressed. It was clear that David could ask Alan for anything, and Alan wouldn't think twice about giving it to him.
I tried to stand and step out of the tub, but began to sway unsteadily as a spasm of pain hit my thigh and side. The two of them helped me step over the edge of the Jacuzzi, and seated me on the rim. Alan helped me into the sweat pants while David supported me. It felt good, having their hands on me. Not sexual good, but just... good. I managed to get the shirt over my head, and David gently tucked my arm into the right sleeve. I managed the other myself, and smoothed down the waistband. I got up slowly. David had brought a pair of thick cotton socks with him, but there was too much water on the floor, so I figured it'd be best to slip them on in the hall. I couldn't of course, so Alan helped support me while David pushed them over my feet. Christian St. Jacques, invalid. I felt stupid, and started to apologize for being such a wuss.
"Shut up," said David. We began our slow progress down the hall and then the stairs. My legs still worked okay, but it was hard to stand erect with the throbbing pain in my side.
"You guys go in and settle in front of the tube," David told us at the bottom of the stairs. "I'm gonna get us some stuff to munch."
Alan walked me to the couch, even though I felt a lot better. I could tell by the way the pillows were arranged they'd been curled up there together. Even though I should have moved off to one of the chairs so as not to crowd them, I didn't want to be too far away, either. I needed people around me right now. I carefully slid to the floor after Alan plopped onto the couch.
"Why down there?" he asked, his face a big question mark.
I hung my head. "Bad enough I'm screwin' up your night. You guys curl together up there, ok? I'm fine down here."
"Bullshit." Alan plopped down next to me. "Dave knew you were coming here, and so did I. We called your house and your parents said you'd gone out with Jamie, so we figured it was time for... well, it was time. He expected you'd be a mess - just not a bloody mess."
He yanked down the quilt that was tossed on the couch, and spread it over the both of us and snuggled up to me. David came back with bags of cheddar-curls and chips, and three bottles of root beer. He didn't say anything, just dropped down on the other side of me and pulled the blanket over his legs, too. "Movie just started when you pulled up. I'll set the DVD to start over again, ok?"
"This Casablanca?" I asked.
"Uh-huh. Twerp's never seen it before. Told him he'd have to turn in his gay card if he didn't watch it."
He made a face at Alan, who stuck out his tongue. "Promises, promises," David said with a leer. Alan blushed.
"Maybe you and Alan should sit together..." I started.
David gave me his devil smile. "Eat me, St. Jacques. We didn't get you naked and clean just so I could hog ya to myself." He raised an eyebrow and ran his tongue over his lips. "We both want a piece of ya tonight."
David hit a button on the remote and the lights dimmed. Then we sat back to watch the movie, the three of us sitting tight and warm together. I leaned my head back. The movie started but I wasn't really watching. Another feature was playing in my head. Slowly, the night played back in my mind... I'd tell them about it all tomorrow... But right now, I wanted to relax...
Of course, what I wanted and what I could have were two different things. The night started to play in my mind again, and the house lights were coming up in the theatre. Jamie had a glum statement on his face, because I'd pushed his hand away... again. He was just trying to hold hands, and had piled the jackets on the armrest as camouflage, even if there was no one who could see. The theater was nearly empty, and Jamie had picked seats over to the side near the rear. That way he wouldn't be blocking anyone's view. He was good about stuff like that. His size could be a problem for others, and he was always conscious of it.
Finally the last credits rolled, the house lights came up, and we could leave.
We stepped out into the lobby, which was nothing more than a glassed-in walkway in front of the theater doors with a ticket booth, a substantial snack bar, and just enough room to cue up if there was a line. I can't ever remember seeing a line in this theatre. Well, maybe when you drove past on a Saturday afternoon and they were running a kids' movie. We stopped and looked out.
"Shit. It's sleeting." Mixed rain and snow, and I was in a new leather coat.
"Don't worry, C. I'll bring the car around." Jamie flashed me his big smile, but I just looked at him in his thin letter jacket, not the tight-woven shiny stuff that repels water but nice, absorbent, almost wool.
"I can walk," I said defiantly. "Stop treating me like I'm helpless."
"Nah, that's a new coat, and you know what leather's like. I'm guessing you didn't spray it with silicone?"
"... um ..."
"Thought so. You wait here, and I'll bring Vicky around."
"Ok, but I'm gonna duck in for a leak." I thought, Don't call me babe. Not tonight.
"No sweat, ba - Chris," he corrected himself. He rushed out into the freezing rain. His beat-up Crown Victoria was at the far end of the lot. It was nice enough when we pulled in, but then, New England's like that. Far cry from the scorching heat of August when we started, when we needed the air conditioner to make sleeping together possible. Now, on the few occasions we managed that, we were cuddled up for the warmth. Heh, I even took to turning down the thermostat an hour before we went to bed just to make sure we did. I wondered if Jamie knew that. It made me smile. It made me forget this was November.
I hate November. It's dark by four and you never know what kind of day it'll turn into. It was cold without really being winter, or at least no snow to brighten things up. In October, at least you had the changing leaves to give things color. But by November everything's gone; it's all just browned grass and the naked trees. November's never a good time for me. It's all dead and not much happens, except the nights get longer and colder. A lot of people like Thanksgiving, but that's never been more than a blip on the radar for me - just a big dinner and a four-day weekend. Not that long weekends are a bad thing. Well, one good thing anyway: it was the marker for Christmas, and that helped.
In December, you knew Christmas was coming. And New Year's - yeah, I was starting to have more respect for New Year's, even if it was just for the party mood. It meant a lot of fun, and this year it would be more than just sitting at home watching the highlights of celebrations around the world, and that old guy with a face-lift hosting some bands. It was a good bet my parents would be away. Dad had been mumbling something about Florida after Christmas. And why not? I was old enough, and so far when they went away, there were no disasters for them to return to.
February was good, too, even though most people don't think about it much. Even if the ground was still cold and frozen, that's when you really saw the changes in the amount of day, and at five in the evening you could still see around you without turning on the lights. In February you began to notice even the quality of light was different: stronger - brighter somehow - and nothing to do with clouds. It was a nice skate from there to March, and spring.
Meanwhile, this was cold November and I still had a long way to go. And I had something to do that part of me didn't want to do.
I also had to pee pretty badly, and I did want to do that, so I ducked inside the men's room. I quickly found the porcelain unit of choice, and focused directly on that spot on the wall in front of me that all men find, conscious of a faint smile of relief as I rid myself of the after-effects of a Double Jumbo King Size Coke. I was standing peacefully when I heard the door swing open behind me and slam against the wall. This was followed by a long, loud, from-the-gut burp that was so funny back in junior high, and the loud release of another type of gas from the rear. Then two other things: the smell of stale beer, and the aroma of weed.
And of course, with five other units available, the guy had to stand next to me. He must have been a foot and a half away from the urinal and a bad shot to boot, and I looked over. I knew the guy: Richard Ward. My age, but officially two years behind me at Haverhill High. We'd started the same year at All Saints, but Dicky disappeared after the second year, not that it mattered. I didn't like Dicky. Not many did.
When he resurfaced in Junior High, he was a year behind me and styling himself Richy or Rich, but it never took. See, if your name is Richard, and you act like a dick... well guess what? It sticks. And if your last name is Ward, and you factor in the New England accent (catch Senator Kennedy between drinks in a news sound-bite), you never pronounce an 'r' when it shows up in the middle of a word. Ward sounds an awful lot like "wahd" the way we talk. So, think it over. Dick. Wahd.
As in "Yo, Dickwad!"
It took, and it followed him through junior high. When he surfaced again I was starting my junior year, and Dicky was a freshman. But 'Dickwad' still dogged him. And... it kinda suited him, really.
Dick was high, I could see that, and he was missing the porcelain pretty badly, and I didn't really care to get piss-splashed, so I forced myself to hurry up a bit and I must have made some sound of disgust.
"Fuck're you looking at?" he slurred, glaring at me with his beady eyes.
You, you fat, stupid ignorant slob, I thought. You pissing on the floor.
"Nothin', Dick. Nothin' at all."
Dicky stood there, splashing off the side of the urinal, squinting his beady eyes lost in the pudged-out, pock-riddled face that crowned his two-hundred twenty-five pounds of non-muscular weight that was belted in a vain attempt to hide his gut. Eighteen years old and still a sophomore, not that it mattered. Good ol' Dickwad never bothered with school much, and not even the Dean of Boys seemed to care. I glanced downward, satisfied to see my right foot was still dry.
He swayed, and glared at me. "St. Jacques, you're a Goddamn fag. You're checkin' me out!"
I zipped up, and backed away. I probably should've kept my mouth shut, but it was too easy. "Nothing to check out from what I can see, Dickwad," I muttered, and began to walk away.
"Fuckin' homo!" he called out behind me.
I ignored him and walked back into the lobby and scanned the window, hoping to see Jamie pulled up front. I saw him, but not where I'd wanted him. He was in the far end of the lot with the hood up, bent over, back to me. Vicky was doing what Fords do best: not starting when it's damp and raw out. Jamie never drove anywhere without a can of Wire Dry, which I judged he was emptying out on the engine. I didn't like the idea, but I hated to just leave him there while I stayed dry and warm, because he had to be soaked from the freezing rain and sleet. At least if I walked out there, I could help him by trying to kick over the engine. It might save him a couple of minutes in the cold and wet. I nodded at the girl taking tickets and smiled, and headed out the door.
The wind hit me, and a blast of cold, freezing rain, and I ducked my head, trying to blink away the feeling that my eyes were gonna freeze up. I dimly heard the theater door opening behind me but I didn't pay any attention to it, and I was stuffing my hands into my pockets and was about to head across the parking lot when something slammed me... HARD... in the base of my spine, and my face suddenly slammed into a glass wall on my right. I tasted blood, and I could feel the warmth of something flooding over my lower lip. As I found myself sliding down the glass, I saw the girl at the ticket booth standing there, curious at the sound at first, then changing to stunned, open-mouthed horror as she watched my face slide down, leaving a swath of blood. She shouted something, and I saw an older man in the distance turn when I heard Dicky's voice close behind me. His black-shoed foot connected with my stomach just as I was trying to pull myself off the concrete, and I doubled-up in agony.
"I'll fix your ass, ya fuckin' little queer!" he bellowed. "Think I'm not good enough for a pussy-boy like you?"
His foot came up again and smashed into my right side, and this time my face struck the cinder blocks under the windows. My right eye registered a searing pain... then another blow, this time into my stomach, and I began to retch from the impact. My arm slammed against the wall, producing a blaze of pain that spread like fire from my shoulder to my elbow.
I think I just flattened on the ground then, and was trying to push up and cradle my arm at the same time, blinking an eye that was beginning to flood with blood. I couldn't see Dicky well, but I saw his Sketcher-clad foot rearing up again, this time close to my head.
His face was dim, but his voice was clear and sharp in my ears. "I'm gonna kick that smart-ass mouth of yours down your fuckin' throat, St. Jacques," he growled. "I don't take no shit from no homo cocksuckers!"
He was winding up for another kick, and I knew this one was going to connect with my head. There was nothing I could do. I had no wind left in me, and I couldn't see much more than his foot. Then I heard an animal sound and Dickey was on top of me, and my injured arm folded up at the wrist. Suddenly, the weight of two men was on top of me, but not for long: they rolled off me and then off the sidewalk, onto the ice-covered parking lot.
Jamie. Jamie had heard something, and must have turned back to the theater and seen what was happening. I could hear him cursing. Still dazed, I watched as his big, open hand smashed Dicky's face twice, three times. Finally, he got up, and foot-stomped Dicky again, then turned back to me, bending over me.
"Baby?" His voice was breathless, and his hands were shaking as he tried to help me to my feet. "Chris, please - say some..."
He didn't finish. Dicky was on top of him, his fists balled together, smashing down on the back of Jamie's neck. He flattened out, sliding off me to the sidewalk, and Dicky started to pound Jamie, sitting on his back and slamming him over and over.
I managed to pull myself up, and spotted an ashtray stand by the door. Not much as a weapon - just aluminum, but something. The pain was screaming in my arm and my injured eye was clenched shut. I was still gasping for breath but I managed to pick it up and stagger over to the two figures rolling around on the ice-slick asphalt. I brought it down on Dicky's head as hard as I could - then again, sideways, and he fell off with a thud.
I panted for a moment, then decided to go after the bastard again, my mouth drawn back in a snarl. I wanted to kill Dicky. Kill him for what he said, for what he did to me, and for what he was trying to do to Jamie. I never truly hated anyone before this, but I hated Dicky. I wanted to smash his skull open. I wanted to see what he thought of as his brain splattered across the sidewalk. I can't ever imagine feeling like that about anyone before. I'd tasted my own blood, and now I wouldn't be satisfied until I tasted Dicky's.
I took a step forward, but a hand stopped me, grabbing my injured shoulder and I dropped the ashtray to the ground with a clatter.
"You'll kill him," a voice said matter of factly.
"That's what I want," I snarled, jerking away from him. It was the manger of the Cinema, a pudgy guy in his fifties, wearing a stupid blue vest with a badge that read 'Gordon.' Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of flashing blue lights, and turned my head. Salem's finest were pulling into the lot.
"Those guys'll take care of him," the man said in a low, soothing voice. "They see you slammin' the bastard, they can get the wrong ideas. Now calm down, kid. Calm down."
The cops slammed the brakes, skidding sideways on the ice. Both hopped out of the cruiser, hands covering their guns. They looked at Dicky and Jamie on the ground, and the manager half-supporting me. The manager gestured to Dicky. "He started it. He slammed this kid into the window out front and started kicking him. Paula saw it, too - you can ask her, and this one never had a chance. The blond kid pulled him off, and when he tried to help the little guy up, the fat-ass suckered him. Then this one laid into him."
One cop was already covering Dick, but wasn't doing much to help him after the manager spoke. The other cop, an older guy wearing sergeants' stripes, helped Jamie get up and got him out of the freezing rain. The younger cop jerked Dick's collar and half-dragged him to his feet, then he grinned in recognition.
"Oh, great. Dicky Ward. 'Sup, Dickwad? Give up shopliftin' at K-Mart for assault?"
Dickey looked dazed, but I guess that was normal for him, anyway. I doubted a blow to the head did much: not much to rattle up there.
He glared at me, and his voice was a sneer. "The little one's a fag. He tried grabbin' me in the men's room. I hadda hit 'em. You know what homos are like."
The cop made a show of sniffing Dickey. "Hmmm. Lemme see... I can smell the beer, and I know you aren't even eighteen yet, never mind twenty-one. And unless my nose is lying, I smell something else, enough to justify a body search."
He patted Dick's jacket front, and smiled. Ward didn't, especially when the cop reached into the breast pocket and pulled out a plastic baggie with papers and weed stuffed in.
"My, my," he said, taunting. "Possession. Funny, I'm pretty sure you're still on probation for being stupid enough to steal a car with Lojack warnings all over it last summer. Possession is good, but assault's even better." He leaned his face close to the teen, and smiled. Dick tried unsuccessfully to squirm out of his grasp. "Do I know what homos are like, Dickey? No, but you'll find out - real soon, I'm thinking. You ain't pretty, but you're young, and some guy on the block is gonna think you look pretty good, once you lose a couple pounds, 'cuz jail food don't taste too good."
He leaned Dicky against the wall as he snapped on the cuffs, droning his Miranda speech. Dicky slipped once on the way to the cruiser, and the cop didn't do much to break his fall. Or to help him up.
"You gonna do something about that fag?" Dick shouted as he was being stuffed into the rear seat. "He grabbed me, I'm telling ya!"
The cop turned to the manager. "You got surveillance cameras in the men's room?"
The manager was still supporting me, and I caught the look he gave the cop.
"Didn't think so. You," he said to me, and looked at my ID. "You grab Dick Ward in the men's room, Chris?"
I repeated the manager's look.
The cop shrugged. "Hey, I gotta ask. So, no one saw you grab that jerk - his word against yours. Meanwhile, at least two people saw him kick the crap out of you, and your buddy comes up and grabs him, then you knock fat ass off when he pounds on..."
"...Jamie," I said stubbornly. "He's my boyfriend."
The cop clammed up, looked at me, looked at Jamie, and then at the manager. He read the man's nametag. "You didn't hear that last part, did you, Gordon?"
Gordon paused, and I could feel his grip relaxing on me. I could feel him distancing from me. The cop looked him in the eye. His face was stone. I looked up at the manger. His face was filled with disgust, and he let me loose. "I didn't hear anything. Just him giving the other kid's name."
The cop still kept his hard stare on Gordon. "That's just fine. All I heard was the name, too. Don't forget that. And don't forget what you said you saw, either, because I won't. Now, why don't you go inside, and help that other kid while I talk to Mr. St. Jacques here."
Gordon walked away, and I could hear him spit behind me. Jamie was being helped by the girl - 'Paula', I suppose - who'd seen me hit the window, and another of the ushers. Gordon just followed behind.
The sergeant reached into his pocket and handed me a handkerchief. His voice was softer, soothing. "Wipe the blood off your face, Chris. And I think it'd be a good idea if you and your buddy checked in at the hospital. I can call an ambulance."
I leaned back against the building, tired and sore. "No. I just want to go home." I looked up at him. His face was more relaxed, and the hard, flinty look he'd taken on when I called Jamie my boyfriend was gone.
"I'm Sgt. Panatakis," he said, and fished out a card, which I slipped into my pocket without looking at it. "With no one else around, what we say is just your word against mine, so I'm not saying anything but covering the usual routine. Gordy in there," he jerked his head at the theater, "Is already on notice to keep his mouth shut. My partner didn't hear what you said, and neither did I."
I gave him a sullen, angry look. "Me being queer means Dickwad's story is true? That what you're saying?"
The cop shook his head. "No, it doesn't. Right now, we got a well-known asshole from out-of-state in custody for assault and possession. He goes before the presiding judge up here, and he's gone. Period. That guy's a hard-ass. The one that gave Dicky parole last fall was a visiting justice while the local was on vacation in Martinique. But - let that same judge hear from that piece of crap that you tried to put the make on him, together with a statement in the record that you guys are gay, and then factor in even the dumbest public defender, and all of a sudden it's a panic defense. That asshole on the bench will let it happen. Plus - all of a sudden the Manchester and the Lawrence papers get a hold of the story. One will cries about the fall of society. The other play's up the gay part of the assault, and how terrible that is. But of course, neither one of them wants the idea of Hate Crimes Laws blah blah balh. I got no problem with the Tribune doing that, but you and your... friend... get names plastered over two papers. Or at least yours will, since you're over eighteen."
He paused, and gave me a fatherly look. "Kid, I got out of high school thirty years ago, but from the talk I hear it still isn't too friendly about the 'G' word. Before you set something in motion that can royally screw you, I want you to think. Incidentally, the prosecutor won't allow any questions about your sexuality based just on what that idiot said. But if it becomes part of your statement, he'll have a tough time keeping it out of the case. The presiding judge of this part of Rockingham County isn't exactly the most liberal guy in the world, which is kinda what you might expect in the most conservative state in the Northeast. Hell, we even have a US Senator who thinks the Republican party is too liberal."
He leaned down to me, looking me in the eyes. "Dickwad goin' to jail right now is a sure thing. It might not be if you say one small word. Think about that. My report stands, no matter what. If Gordon in there tries to screw with his statement, or add to what he saw or heard before you called that big kid your boyfriend, I'll see him crucified."
I knew he was sincere, but I remembered something from my mother earlier that evening.
You're less likely to receive police protection.
Well, I'd get police protection; I just might not get justice. All because of one thing. One little thing that contributes to making me who I am, not just what I am. That one little thing could get Richard Ward off free.
"Come into the station sometime tomorrow and press the charges. We got enough to hold Dick-Boy until he can be arraigned on Tuesday, anyway. Think about what I said before you commit yourself. It's your business what you do."
I looked back inside the theater. Jamie had bruises on his cheek, and his clothes were messed up and wet, but that was it. I looked back at Sgt. Panatakis. I liked him, I really did. He cared about what happened to me - what might happen to me if I said the wrong thing.
"Think they might let me clean up in there?" I asked.
For an answer, Jamie stepped out onto the sidewalk, just as the theater lights blinked off. Gordon was shutting down the Salem Tri-Cinema for the night, and was locking the doors.
Sgt. Panatakis squinted his eyes at Gordon, who paused at the door before spinning the lock shut. He didn't look pleased.
"I can make him open up."
I shook my head. "Forget it. Bastard's prob'ly afraid he'll have to start checking crotches. I just want to go home... " I trailed off.
Jamie was beside me now, and he put a hand on my shoulder. I looked into his eyes, and saw the pain he felt there. Not for himself. For me.
"C? You okay? I think we better get you to the emergency room."
"Good idea," added the cop.
I just stood there, trying to shrink into myself. "No. I just want to get out of here. Just take me home, please Jamie? And sergeant," I looked into that hard face with just the slightest hint of a smile. "Thanks, okay? I'll think over what you said. I'll be up to the station in the morning and sign the papers."
He nodded, and went to pat me on the shoulder - the wrong shoulder, of course - and my knees went week at the sudden flash of pain, but I didn't say anything or make a sound. I didn't want this hospital thing to go on forever. All I wanted was clean clothes and a warm place and some peace.
Sgt. Panatakis got back into his car, and the cruiser slowly rolled through the icy parking lot, its blue lights flashing slowly, but without a siren blaring. They carefully eased into the thin traffic on Route 28, and I watched Dicky's scowling face through the back window until the car disappeared.
Jamie came around to my good side, and put an arm around my waist to steady me. My thigh was killing me, and I was so cold I was shivering. My jacket was still wide open, since I'd never finished zipping it up. I held the handkerchief to my nose, but the blood wasn't oozing anywhere near as heavily now. Good thing, too. The white linen was saturated with my blood. I suppose I should have thrown it away, but I stuffed it into my pocket.
Jamie opened the door of the Ford and helped me inside, slamming the door. I watched him lean under the hood and I guess spray the engine with Wire Dry again, then he slammed the hood down, walked around and slid in beside me. He turned the ignition. The Ford argued about it; the battery was getting weaker from the attempts to start earlier, you could hear that. Goddamn Ford. Then it caught just as we started to hear this tired wheeze from the starter, and Vicky came to life. Jamie floored it. We waited a few minutes to build the battery back up and then he switched the heater on.
At least that always works, I thought gratefully.
I looked at Jamie. His eyes were locked on me, and I saw pain in his face. His voice quivered. "Chris, I am so sorry. I let you down. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK!"
I didn't understand him. "You went to get the car," I said, shaking my head. "There's no big deal."
He shook his head. "I let you down..." he trailed.
"Jamie ..." I started, I was in no mood for this. Not now.
"Tomorrow, Chris. We gotta talk tomorrow, ok?"
He shifted into Drive, and we carefully crept forward, Jamie easing back on the gas when we heard the tires spinning and the back of the car sway. Fortunately the road had been sanded, and with so little traffic, there was no problem turning left across the four lanes. Even so, he took it easy. We headed south over the Massachusetts border, which was less than a mile away. Jamie slowly turned onto the entry ramp of 213, which would bring us back to the Interstate, and then home.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I heard this sound that was like "SNARK!" and jerked my head up, blinking. I had to smile. It was Alan. He'd fallen asleep next to me, and his head was leaned back and to one side and his mouth was open. Oh, great. He snored, too. And drooled. I chuckled, and even that made my side hurt.
"Welcome back," I heard Dave say, and looked over to him. I blinked my eyes. I could tell by the music that Casablanca was over, that Humphrey and Claude had committed themselves to the Underground and their beautiful friendship, once the Usual Suspects had been rounded up.
"I must have fallen asleep."
David twisted his mouth and raised an eyebrow. "No one sleeps that rigid and tense, but then you're weird anyway. Are you gonna be okay, now? Can you handle being alone now?"
I had to smile. Couldn't keep much from David. "Yeah, I'm ok. Thanks, Davey."
"Okay - sleeping arrangements. Is the couch gonna be alright? It's comfortable, even if you insisted on doing the floor. You got the quilt and extra pillows. I'd offer my bed, but I've made, um... other commitments. Heh."
Did I actually see David blushing for once? Yes, I did. I didn't use the advantage though, and I eased away from Alan. David leaned down and shook him gently. Alan was funny to watch. His eyes popped open at David's touch, then he twisted up his face like a gremlin.
"Bright light. Grak."
The kid stumbled to his feet, blinking. Dave slipped an arm around his waist and they headed for the stairs. It didn't escape my notice that David's hand slipped inside the back of Alan's shorts as they walked off, Alan still leaning against David. I looked at those hairy little legs for a second and it passed through my head that even if his chest and back were bare, he might suddenly fuzz up like a satyr below the belt. One of these days, I'd have to ask David. I was pretty sure he was gonna find out for sure tonight.
Without thinking I raised my right arm to switch off the light, and
once my silent howl finished and the pain went away, I reached out with
my left instead, and settled in for the night, pulling the covers to my
head. The last thing I remembered was hoping that I'd be able to get some
rest tonight before my lights switched off, too.
To be continued...
Copyright 2002 by Keith Mystery