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I watched the dirty, old Suburban drive out of view, the honk of its horn and "The Four Bells" competing with a roll of thunder. Toby's pained smile as he leaned as far out the rear side window as he could was all I saw. I waved a final times as the car began the curve to the street, even though I knew Toby couldn't see me any longer. I felt so blue, so empty, so lost. Already.
In the silence, the sound of the first few raindrops hitting the concrete. My heart felt like stopping. There wasn't any reason for it to bother beating anymore; the person that made it glad that it beat was gone.
Toby's aunt put her arm on my shoulders, saying, "So, Alex, I understand you think Toby should come stay with me?"
I took hold of that hope and kneaded it to life. I had to have that, or at least try with all that I could to have it.
"Yes, ma'am! He hates it down there. He would have guys to talk to and hang out with up here, too."
"Yes. I see what you mean. Well, his parents seem to think they could move here, and maybe Toby and his mother come and stay with me. I think that would be nice, don't you?" she asked, turning me toward her.
"Yes! That would be great! Do you think it'll happen?" I asked, looking up at the tall woman.
Last summer she had been as cold and arrogant as any adult had ever been to me. This sumer she was acting totally different. She smiled down at me with a smile I knew was honest and warm. Her eyes didn't look happy at all, but I understood why.
"Who knows? I don't mind. I think it would do Toby good. He seemed to cheer up after you two got reacquainted, didn't he?"
"He did? He was more down before?" I asked, looking up at her, wondering how much I could get from her.
"I have something to tell you," she said, placing both of her hands on my shoulders. Her face was sad, and I sensed it coming. "We didn't want you to know while he was here. We thought we would save you from that. For a while. And him. Toby might move back, Alex, but it will only be for a little while. He's sick. His glands aren't right, and there's nothing more anyone can do about it. He has whatever time he has, but it won't be very long. We didn't want to tell you while he was still here, you understand?"
"Protecting me. I know. Everyone thinks they have to protect the kid. What's it called?" I asked, cold and calm, so suddenly distant from what was occurring that I didn't even wonder why I felt nothing except surprise at my own un-reaction.
Toby isn't just not eating, he isn't just sick of the town, he isn't just tortured by the coach; he's deathly sick, too! I began to rage inside. Why? Why Toby? There ain't no God! No good God would make a guy like Toby sick! No God I want to know. Ever!
"I can't pronounce it. Something endocrine something-or-the-other. Not a cancer, some kind of defect, probably from birth. It didn't cause any problems until just a couple of years ago. They didn't know there was something wrong until late last summer. It's why his hair is so pale now, and his skin. It affects those, makes them lose their color. He won't be with us too long, Alex. I wanted you to know, but not while you could still not worry about it and just have fun with him. I think he really needed that."
There was a nearby roll of thunder, long and rumbling. The rain picked up, and the trees sighed in the increasing winds.
"I thought of not telling you anything until, until it was, over. But I can't do that. I don't want to pretend that long, and make that phone call to you some day who knows how long from now. Weeks? A couple of months?
"Yeah, thanks, I guess," I said, feeling a bit used, but little else.
I was surprised again when I realized that I felt like that, wondering how I could feel used, but not any real sadness at that moment. I suddenly worried that there was something wrong with me. I thought that I should feel very sad about Toby, far more than I felt used. I didn't though, and knowing that only made it seem that much worse. I was sure the sadness was coming, though.
The tall pines along the drive began to moan in the increasing winds. The flashes of lighting were closer, more visible in the dimming daylight as the heavy clouds of the storm moved over us. The rain began in earnest.
"Alex, the doctors said he probably won't have time to graduate high school. They don't know for sure. If he can come back, he will. For as long as he likes, short as it might be. And if he does, you're going to notice it. I don't want you surprised. You understand?"
Now I felt the sadness growing. The emotions that were stalled by the sudden realization now came free and stormed through me as the storm broke overhead. Toby's aunt turned me toward the door and walked us inside as I shook with grief and the rain fell loudly. She sat with me for a while as I cried. We sat on the short sofa by the open front doors, her holding me close to her, letting me cry, occasionally offering kind words; words I really didn't want to hear. I just wanted to be alone, but not alone, and I was too sad to even get up.
"Alex, we all have a time to go. I don't know why Toby's is so soon, but there has to be a reason. God has some special plan for. . . "
"Don't tell me about God!" I demanded as I stood up violently, breaking her embrace. "There ain't no God! No decent, caring god would possibly kill a kid!" I screamed at her, tears running down my red cheeks, my eyes angry. "Toby ain't done nothin' t'deserve it! Fuck God!" I yelled and stormed out of her house.
I had brought my pack downstairs and it was already on my bike or I would most likely have left it behind. I rode off into the thunderstorm without looking back. It was a hard time riding home with tears behind my glasses, the rain on them not mattering that much because of them. Once I got home, without lightning killing me as I had hoped and prayed the entire way, I ran upstairs and threw myself onto bed.
I cried out loud, railing against a God who would be so cruel. Someone knocked at the door and rang the bell; I ignored it. The phone rang again several times during the day, but I ignored it. The synthesizer sat along the wall, constantly reminding me that, "Tainted Love" was the last song I had played on it - with Toby. When my parents came home and called up to see if I was awake or even home, I ignored them. Bouts of tears plagued me the entire day. I didn't come down when mom called for dinner, nor did I say goodnight when dad called it from downstairs. Dad came up, though, calling again.
" 'Sokay, dad. Just sleeping!" I yelled down when I heard the stairs squeak.
"Okay, goodnight, son. Tom called, and came by before dinner, we thought you were still over with Toby."
"He went home. I guess I won't see him ever again," I said angrily, still lying on my stomach on the bed, hiding my face and my tears from my dad by facing toward the window.
"Tom? Or Toby?" he asked.
Sometimes they can be so stupid, I thought of adults.
"Toby," I called back with difficulty and more anger than I intended.
I had tried to keep my voice level as I said the name, not wanting to reveal how strongly it affected me; it was a useless attempt.
"Well, goodnight," dad said expectantly.
I didn't say anything else. I didn't move all night. I was in the same position the next morning, sprawled spread-eagle, face down, damp and prickly when mom called up that breakfast was ready. I yelled that I wasn't hungry, that I would get something later. When each of my parents called that they were leaving for work, I yelled okay from the exact same position.
I got a drink of water later, from the bathroom when nature had become very insistent, and a soda from downstairs by afternoon, but I wasn't interested in food. I railed at the universe, decried any possibility of a just God as ridiculous. I cried and slept in turns, occasionally making half-hearted attempts to read or watch television. I didn't change my still damp clothes, figuring it was pointless when Toby had to suffer so much more. I ignored the phone and the front door all day. None of it mattered. I didn't want to hear from anyone. If I couldn't have Toby, I didn't want anyone, or anything.
I agonized that long weeks lay ahead before I could hope of any news of whether Toby may possibly come back, maybe for good, but even then for a limited time. Then the long wait until they did come, if they even could. It was worse than the waiting of months ago for them to decide if they were coming up for the summer. This time, it could possibly be the last time I got to see him. But Toby would be sicker. Weaker. Going to die.
I railed again against God, denied his existence next, and then told him he was an unjust bastard later. Then I began making bargains with him. Anything for Toby's health: My own health, my own life, my own soul . . . anything.
When dad came home and called up, I called back with only a generic acknowledgement. Later, the phone rang again for probably the tenth time that day, and I didn't feel like answering it, still. Mom called up that it was for me.
Great, I thought. Probably Tom or one of the guys, and I don't feel like talking to anyone. I picked up the phone and said hello as rudely as I could.
"Alex?" Toby's voice asked.
"Yeah! Tobes! What's up?" I said, immediately brightening, my belly tingling, my heart thrilling at the sound of his voice.
Just the sound of his voice was music to lighten my heart, I realized. I could have sworn at that moment that the sun had just come out for the first time since he had left.
"Where ya been? I called yesterday a bunch a times, and t'day all day."
"I didn't know! Sorry! I didn't expect you to call until you got home. Maybe tomorrow, you know?" I said, feeling like an ass for not answering the phone at least, realizing the stupidity of ignoring things. "Where you at?"
"At a truck stop, somewhere in Tennessee. Just wanted ta tell ya I had a great big dinner. Steak 'n baked p'tata with sour cream 'n garlic bread. 'N strawberry pie. Been eatin' like a preggo hog. Like I promised."
"Cool! Keep it up!" I said, hearing something still so sad in Toby's voice, wishing to God it would go away and never return, taking the evil memories with it.
The truth about Toby's illness came forward, bringing anger with it. I wanted to confront Toby about it, wanted to demand why he hadn't been honest with me. But then suddenly I didn't, I only wanted to hear him talk and be happy.
"I promised. Alex, I wanted t'say, no matter what happens, nothin' is your fault. And . . . I so love you."
My heart thrilled and beat double-time at hearing our special phrase. The thoughts of confronting Toby about being so sick were completely crushed in the emotional rush.
"I so love you, too," I said, meaning it deeply, wishing that I could extend my heart to him over the phone.
"We was somethin' special, wasn't we?"
"Yeah, we are," I said firmly. "Your aunt said something about you might get a chance to come back soon. Your parents say anything?" I probed, knowing I had promised not to mention it.
I had almost added "yet" to the end of it.
I didn't reveal anything, was just asking, I rationalized. And it might brighten Toby some, I hoped.
"Just hang in there. I bet we see each other again in no time!" I said as enthusiastically as I could.
"I got the last of your s'prises here. Been savin' it 'till I talked t'ya. I'm gonna go fire it up now. Thanks. Thanks for all of it. For everything. I so love you," Toby said, sounding like he was nearly in tears.
"I so love you," I said again, wanting to say things to cheer him up, to stop the tears, to make him smile, to keep him talking.
A click told me that I was already too late, that Toby had hung up. I listened anyway, to the static, hiss and pops, and the distant, phantom voices for a long time before I put the phone down and wiped my eyes.
He's got to move here! If there is a God and he's got any justice or love in him, Toby will come back!
I felt far worse than before the phone call, surprisingly. I was happier after hearing Toby's voice, but I was still angry that he had hidden the truth from me, and still angry that he was sick. Dying. I curled up on the bed in the fetal position again and cried, again.
How can the universe be so cruel? I wondered. How can there be a God when people who had no chance to love each other, fell in love? What was the point? Torture? Is life hell? Am I in purgatory and being tortured for being gay? Shown love, and have it torn away, twice, or more? Is that fair? Is that just?
I had to burn energy. I sat at the synthesizer and played. Paradise Theater, all the way through. Then "The Best Of Times," again. And then, "Sail Away" and "Renegade." Then, "Tainted Love."
Other songs, too, a few country, but "Tainted Love" was particularly Toby. We had discovered the song together, and loved it instantly. Together. Playing it hurt, deeply, terribly, and I collapsed onto the bed directly after playing it. It had been the last song Toby and I had played together, as well.
I lay on the bed, trying not to cry any more. I felt like letting myself cry until my eyes dissolved and the rest of me dehydrated into dust. I fell asleep.
I woke up in a place with no features. There was no bed, no walls, no sky, no ground, no trees, and no buildings. Nothing: Just a hazy white. I sensed someone, and when I turned, Toby was there. He looked so healthy, so fit and strong and happy. He was naked, and I seemed to expect that, and it didn't matter, and wasn't sexy in any way. It was just right. He motioned for me to stay where I was. I wanted to run to him, had already taken a single step, but I had stopped at his gesture, instantly, but not willingly.
Toby was white, glowing, radiating a warm light that calmed me and removed the grief and fear in an instant.
"Lexy, listen, this is important. Don't start the van. Not without your dad there."
"What are you talking about?"
"You'll have a van, and you'll wanna start it up, but don't! Not unless your dad wants you too."
"What are you talking about?"
"We all have a purpose. We can't know it, even understand it, 'til we meet our Father. I seen mine. And yours. And many others'. Ya have a hard road ahead, and I can't help with it more than a bit. I can't tell ya anything 'bout your purpose, neither. But, I can tell ya, I'll be watchin' ya, be nearby. As long as ya walk the right road, I won't be far. And if ya stay on that road, we'll meet again. In a place where ya won't cry again."
"What road? How will I know if I'm on it? What can I do to stay on it? What are you talking about?"
"Ya know already. And every fork in the road will be well marked, as long as ya look for the signs. Understand?"
"I think. Yeah. Should I go to church?"
"If ya like. It's not important to. It's only important to keep His teachings foremost in all things. Love everyone, and hate no one. Like ya do. And hurt nobody. Like ya do. Just don't change."
I felt such an ache in my heart that I wondered if it had stopped. I burned to reach out to him, but I was paralyzed. All I could do was talk. I wanted to hug him, at least touch him, but I somehow knew that was impossible. And that only hurt more. But even all that pain and hurt was eclipsed by the love and joy that seemed to soak into me from all directions.
"Toby. I so love you."
His smile made all things pale. I warmed.
"You have so much to do."
Then I felt a gust of wind, and felt a cold chill run through me. He seemed fainter suddenly, and I felt as if I were watching him drive away from me again. I couldn't take that kind of pain again, not again.
"Toby! Please don't leave!"
"I have to, Lex. No choice. I so love you."
The wind was increasing and the roar of it almost drowned out his words.
"And I always will! And remember the van! Don't start it without your dad!"
He faded, like a flimsy cloud evaporating on a hot day. Along with him went all light, the sound and sensation of the roaring wind, the feeling of joy and love, and my thoughts.
* * *
I was woken when mom brought dinner up; a very unusual occurrence. I immediately grew suspicious. Mom apparently saw that fact and tried to reassure me.
"You seemed so down, with Toby gone home, I just thought you needed a good, hot bowl of soup. And you look like you need a shower. I don't think you've ate since you got back last night soaking wet, and still in the same clothes! I don't want you to make yourself sick."
That struck a chord with me.
No! I thought. I won't follow Toby down that road. I will pull Toby kicking and screaming back from that road! And how could she be so crude to use the word!
I started to get mad, then I realized that there was probably no way she knew . . . unless it came up at the BBQ. I had to know if she knew.
"Yes?" she asked, putting the tray on the bedside table.
"Do you know Toby is sick? Real sick?"
She paused for a moment, meeting my eyes before saying, "Yes. And just how did you find out?"
"His aunt. She told me right when they left. She said they didn't want to tell me so I'd have a good time while he was here."
"They mentioned it, after the BBQ, during cards. We all agreed it was best. Guess his aunt wanted you to know," she said sadly, sitting on the bed next to me, caressing my hair.
It felt good, reassuring, but differently than when Toby did it. Mom's touch was softer, but the same, all comforting, but nothing sexual. It did nothing to make me feeling like crying any less, but it did make me feel better.
"She said he might come back, to stay, for, for as long. . . " I said, unable to finish the thought, choking up, taking my eyes from hers.
"That would be nice, huh?" she asked, combing my hair with her fingers.
"Yes! I hope he does," I said, sniffing and fighting against further tears.
"Time will tell. I hope so, too, hun."
"Thanks mom," I said, feeling better for no obvious reason.
Once I sat up and took the tray, placing it on my lap, she said, "Tom called, again. I told him you weren't feeling well, probably a bug. You have to talk to him tomorrow, you know."
"Yeah. Back to normal, huh?" I said, bitterly.
"Come downstairs later, we rented the new James Bond movie," she said, tussling my hair as she stood.
"Fine. Star Trek is over at seven, be down then, okay?" I asked, tucking into the soup and grilled cheese.
"Fine," she said, then walked out of my room, throwing me a smile before she started down the stairs.
I was alone, again. All I could think of was Toby, of course. And my dream of him. I wondered why I would dream of warning myself not to start up some van. I felt warmed when I thought of how real it seemed, and how real the emotions seemed. Even while I thought of the dream I actually felt as if Toby himself had told me how much he loved me. Despite the pain I felt about his having left, I smiled as I thought of the dream and what was said between us. I couldn't wait for him to call when he got home the next day.
"For Your Eyes Only" was finally on VHS, after the big laserdisc promotion when it was only available on them. Mom and dad had never seen it, and so far they liked it, and I liked using my knowledge of the movie to point things out as it went along.
The phone rang, and mom answered it. I hoped she knew I didn't want to talk to anyone. I cringed as I waited for her to say it was for me, knowing it would most likely be Tom.
Great, just as the movie gets good, I thought.
When mom kept talking, I let the fear of it being Tom or one of the other guys evaporate and relaxed back into the movie. Kristatos was just surrendering to Bond and Melina when the movie paused. I turned to reprimand dad for once again sitting on or accidentally hitting the button on the remote, but stopped the verbal assault when I saw mom holding out the phone to me.
Both of them look strange, I thought. Sad, worried, scared, or something.
"Alex, it's Toby's aunt. You should talk to her," she said, gesturing for me to sit on the couch between them and take the phone.
What the hell is this? I worried. What was going on? Had Toby's parents made the decision to come back up or not already? Maybe she had just now talked to mom about the way I left her house? Why else would his aunt be calling me? I felt a flush of shame as I remembered how I had left her house so rudely, and prepared myself for a dressing down.
I took the phone, sat on the couch between my parents, stared at the frozen, wobbly image on the television, and said hello.
"Alex, this is Barbara, Toby's aunt," she said.
I immediately knew something was wrong. Her voice sounded really different, and not in a good way; it was shaky, quavering. There was no anger in her voice, but it was wrong.
"Uh, hi, what's wrong?" I asked, my own voice sounding a bit off as well.
"It's Toby." She was sniffling, and her voice had that sound of when someone has been crying. "Alex, there was an accident. He's gone, Alex," she said, sniffling and fighting not to cry.
"What?" I asked, feeling my body jerk into a rigid, upright position.
I startled my parents, causing them to sit a little closer to me. My eyes were locked on the still image on the screen, burning that image into me forever. I could suddenly feel every fiber of my clothing against my skin; it was very uncomfortable.
"Toby's gone," she said, breaking into short sobs.
"What? I just talked to him earlier today!" I nearly screamed, causing both of my parents move closer yet.
This isn't happening. It's a mistake. She's wrong. She's lying. We left something behind, she found it and now they don't want me and Toby to see each other anymore. This is some other Barbara who got the number wrong when she called some other Alex to tell him this about some other nephew named Toby!
All of these ran through my mind in the short pause before Toby's aunt went on.
"They stopped to have something to eat. Toby said he was going to the bathroom and he would meet his parents in the car when they finished eating. When they waited and he didn't show up, they went looking for him." She lost control for a few seconds, fighting the tears and the grief.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It had to be a nightmare.
"There were police and an ambulance at the highway. His dad went to find out . . . he had walked out in front of a truck. It was getting off the highway, on a off ramp, and the truck driver said he walked right out in front of him."
She fought more tears, having something else to say, I sensed, so I waited. I had nothing to say. My heart only beat now to push oxygen around my body, it's only remaining purpose; one it could cease at any time as far as I was concerned.
"It was instant. He didn't feel anything. He left a note in the car, Alex. It's got your name on it. They want to send it to me so I can give it to you, okay?"
I had to swallow what felt like my own heart several times before my throat would make noises. "Yeah, sure. Okay."
"I'm sorry, Alex. You know he had only a limited time, anyway. He just didn't want to drag it out. Alex, you understand?"
I understood: Pieces were falling into place that I had no idea existed. The past several days had been some of the worst of my life thus far, but I knew that was nothing. I knew that even if I lived a miserable existence from then on, that night would go down as one of the lowest moments of my life. There was simply no way that life could be harder, worse, or more disappointing, I thought.
Again I found myself examining my emotions as if I were a third party, some remote onlooker who only had a clinical interest in them. I knew that I should be crying, upset, and maybe even screaming, but I only felt sorry that Toby's aunt had to call me like that. I also felt a bit guilty that she was being nice again, even after I had tore out of her house like I had. But of grief, I only felt it way down deep inside, ready, but just threatening for then. It knew it would get out and have its way, sooner or later. It seemed to be playing with me, like a cat with a mouse. It knew it would own me sooner or later, and was enjoying being poised to strike, yet biding it's time, making me suffer that much more in the horror of the anticipation.
There was nothing but a funny kind of buzzing. Not a sound, more a sensation. It was completely blocking any real sensations, any real thoughts, any real emotions.
"Alex, honey, you understand? Toby's . . . he's, gone honey."
"Alex, I'll call when the letter arrives."
"I'm sorry, Alex. Will you be okay, hun?"
"Let me talk to your mom again, okay, hun?"
I must have handed the phone to either mom or dad, I never remembered which, and it didn't matter. The next thing I remembered was opening my eyes and I was in bed, and the last thing I could remember was handing the phone to someone.
I couldn't remember whom I had been talking to, or what about. I only knew the phone call had made everything change. I hadn't looked yet, but I knew it was different outside. I hadn't even looked around my room, but I knew things were different in there, too. Everything was different, but the same, or changed in some way I could never understand. It was all darker and bleaker, empty and hollow.
I was talking to someone one the phone, I'm sure of it. Some lady I kinda know. The call was important. Because of it, nothing would ever be the same. And the call was sad. Whatever it was, it was sad. I wish Toby were here to help figure out this puzzle.
That was when it all fell into place in a painful, blinding flash.
Toby is dead.
He killed himself.
After he called me!
I was probably the last person to hear his voice!
He hung up, smoked that joint, and walked out in front of a truck getting off the highway.
It all fell into place, taking my sanity with it, down a dark, tight, tunnel.
I cried and tore at my shirt. I needed to vent anger on something; God wasn't there to berate for his unfeeling unkindness, and that evil coach wasn't there to cut into small pieces and feed to the Dobermans next door, so I settled for the shirt. I sat on the side of the bed crying when I got no satisfaction from the destruction of it, and it lay in several pieces on the floor. There were a few scratches on my chest where my nails had tore through the shirt as I had ripped it off. I watched one scratch on the front of my shoulder as my blood swelled into a drop, then slowly ran downward.
Why Toby? I repeated to myself over and over. Why Toby?
"What kind of cruel bastard god are you?" I screamed out loud. "Fuck you! You'll never get a fucking prayer from me!"
I kicked the table over, sending things hurling around the room. I didn't care. The one guy who had said that he loved me, the guy that I loved, Toby, wonderful, kind, gentle, adorable Toby was dead.
I started blaming myself before Toby's last call, and some of his last words, rang loudly in my mind.
"Nothing is your fault. And. I so love you," I heard his voice say to me again.
"Then why did you do this?" I screamed so loudly that I hurt my throat. "You could have had a few more months! Why not at least try?" I yelled, as if sheer volume would hurl my words through the divide to wherever Toby was.
My parents came running up the stairs and forced me to sit on the bed, hugging me tightly. Their soothing words only inflamed my anger and grief.
"I don't want your words! I want Toby back!" I pleaded through the tears.
"His was sick, and he knew he was dying. He didn't want to go slow, in a bed, getting weaker and having to be taken care of," mom offered.
While I knew it was logical, could see that even through the grief, it still meant Toby's death, and that meant it was unacceptable.
"No! He could've gotten better! Medicine advances fast! They could have found a cure! Or something! Anything!" I shouted, not just to my parents, not just to God, but to the entire universe.
"But not before it was too late for Toby, son," dad offered. "His systems were failing. He got little nutrition from food. His systems were shutting down. He was going to get real sick, soon. He would have wasted away in bed, son. You understand?"
"Why did he have it? Why?" I asked, again not simply of my parents.
I tried to curl into a ball, to get away from the horror of it all. The strong arms of my parents prevented that, though.
"Who knows," mom said softly, combing my hair with her fingers.
She rocked me as dad patted circles on my back, saying, "God has a plan for all of-"
"Don't preach God to me! I don't want a thing to do with no God that makes somebody like Toby sick!" I screamed.
"Alex, you're young, you don't know everything. Trust us, there's a reason for everything. God or not. Nothing happens that isn't for some reason. Sometimes we can't see the reason for a very long time. Sometimes we never see it. I'm not saying it doesn't hurt, or that it's right, just that it is," she insisted.
"Everyone passes, Alex. You will loose others, son. It's a sad fact of life. Some day you will loose us, God forbid we loose you first. Don't expect this to be a one-time thing," dad warned me.
That worked: The hard truth. No platitudes. No pithy phrases. No sappy sayings. I calmed a bit, finally coming under control, seeing the reality of it. Grief took over for rage. I wasn't over the first of the real grief, and I knew that. I knew that more was ahead; not just for Toby, but for others as well.
Even my parents, maybe even Tom, or who knows next, but it's there, ahead somewhere. This is only the first.
"Something everyone has to deal with, yeah, yeah, yeah. So why does it hurt so much?"
"Love is that way. No matter who you love," mom said, rocking and holding me tightly as I felt the anger wane slightly, making room in my overflowing emotional cart for the grief to grow dramatically.