If you don't like stories involving gay male characters, this story isn't for you. If you're a minor or if it's illegal for you to read these stories, you are not encouraged to read them and the author takes no responsibility if you do. Also, the story, and all characters in it are FICTIONAL any resemblance to real life or someone you know is a coincidence. The characters and story are the property of the author, and while I don't care if you print chapters out for your own enjoyment, please don't sell or post elsewhere without permission. This includes "borrowing characters" for your own story. If you want to do it, ask first. Any comments, questions, please send to Dluka1983@hotmail.com or post them in the forum at the website here: http://domluka.gayauthors.org/
Thanks to Jim for editing!
“Here,” Frank said, pressing a stone into the palm of Rudy’s small hand. “The flat ones work best. Try it.” Her small face scrunched up in concentration as she took the stone and tossed it like Frank had just shown her, and grinned when it skipped twice over the lake. Frank smiled at her success. “Nice one, Rudy. Wanna try again?”
“No. Throwing rocks isn’t that fun. My stomach hurts.”
“That’s because you’re hungry,” Frank informed her. “We should have had lunch by now.”
With their mother working during the day, Frank found that he wasn’t the best babysitter on the planet. He didn’t mind his sister, but she was odd when it came to basic necessities. She was one of those kids that needed to be reminded of everything between eating a meal and going to the bathroom before they left the house. Frank had enough trouble remembering those things on his own, let alone for someone else.
“Can we go inside now?” Rudy asked.
Frank nodded, looking towards the sky. It was overcast again, and he was beginning to feel claustrophobic. The clouds kept getting closer to the ground, as if they intended to crush him. “Yeah. What do you want to eat?”
“Soup.” That wasn’t a surprise. She always wanted soup. She liked soup.
“Okay, go get it out,” Frank said, and then as she headed towards the house, he added, “Don’t touch that stove.”
“I’m old enough to use the stove!” Rudy called back, rolling her eyes.
Frank sighed. He was right behind his sister, but not before his eyes drifted to where they’d been going for days now. The red roof across the lake looked farther every time he set eyes on it. The day he’d gone to town with David Martin, Frank had come home hoping to receive another visit from Oliver, but it hadn’t happened. Oliver hadn’t come the next day, either. Or any day, for nearly a week now. Frank hoped that he wasn’t in trouble. He hoped that David wasn’t in trouble, either. He’d been tempted to go across the lake to find out, but hadn’t had much of an opportunity to over the last few days. His mom had taken up employment at the ice cream parlor rather quickly--less than twenty-four hours after Frank had given her the message--and he’d been stuck watching his sister, and would be until her day camp reopened after a minor insect infestation. He didn’t mind watching Rudy, exactly. They got along well enough, and they’d made a lot of progress in the house as far as organization went. But having to be responsible for Rudy did prevent him from some things, especially paying a visit to the Martins. After Mrs. Martin blatantly told him to stay away, he didn’t want to risk a confrontation with his little sister in tow.
He shook his head at the situation and went to help Rudy make her lunch. It was fairly easy now that the kitchen was clean, and everything they didn’t use on a daily basis had been moved to either the attic or the storage shed outside, and there was room to walk just about anywhere inside. There was even space on the floor for a bowl of cat food. When David’s mom had started setting it out for the strays they couldn’t seem to get out of the house, he’d been opposed to the idea. But more recently, he’d found himself shooing the four cats he saw regularly in the house away from the door when they tried to go outside. He’d seen just how safe strays were on the other side of his door, and didn’t care for it.
After lunch he worked with Rudy in the garden she’d planted behind the house, if staring at the ground counted as work. His sister had planted a few seeds the day after they moved in, but wasn’t having much luck with growing them. She was becoming less optimistic about the success of her garden, and to cheer her up, Frank suggested that they go for a walk. He wanted to take her on the trail that led to the place where he met Oliver. He’d rethought the idea of turning the old building into a clubhouse for her. He no longer liked the idea of Rudy out there alone. But, at least they could do some exploring and pass the time before their mother got home.
To Frank, it seemed like a longer trip without his bike, but he was distracted from most of it as he talked with his sister about their new home. Rudy had seemed to adjust so quickly that it was surprising for Frank to learn that his sister was having as difficult a time with things as he was. She claimed that she couldn’t understand half the girls at camp because they talked funny, so some didn’t like her, and she missed how things used to be. She wanted to call her friends like their mom said she could when they got phone service. But, it seemed that she still had two more days to wait. Frank suggested that she write to her friends as he had done his second day there, but Rudy insisted a phone call was better. She was probably right, Frank thought, since he hadn’t heard back from anyone yet.
“Do you think Dad will call when we have a phone?” Rudy asked.
Why would we want him to? Frank wanted to know, but he didn’t dare say it out loud. He figured his sister was delusional when it came to their father. She was still caught up in the fantasy that he’d come back. Frank was always tempted to tell her that in reality, the man was the biggest ass who’d ever lived, but his mom had asked that he not say anything mean about their dad in front of Rudy. Frank had chosen to respect that for the time being. But he wasn’t willing to encourage the fantasy, either.
“I don’t know, Rudy. He won’t even have our number.”
“Mom says I can call and give it to him.”
“If you can get a hold of him.” Frank had gone through months of calling after their father had first left. He’d finally grown tired of constantly being told his father was too busy to talk, and the promises that were never kept. Now, he liked to think that he was over it.
“Maybe he’ll come visit. Do you think he’ll go in the lake with us? Mom says it’s going to warm up really soon, so maybe we can go swimming.”
“Let’s go this way, Rudy,” Frank said when he noticed his sister moving off the trail. Besides, he was ready for a subject change. “It’s starting to smell like rain. I don’t want to get lost out here if it does.”
Rudy turned up her nose to sniff at the humid air. “I don’t smell anything.”
“Let’s not get lost, anyway,” Frank insisted.
Frank led his sister to the shed, which seemed to be in worse shape after the most recent storm. She wasn’t very impressed with it, so they continued on, following another trail that Frank hadn’t explored yet. There wasn’t much there, either, except a curious raccoon that Frank had to chase off before it decided to follow them home. Nothing really interesting happened until they headed back home. Even before they reached the low bridge, Frank spotted a familiar motorboat near it and urged Rudy to pick up the pace.
“Is Oliver here?” Rudy asked when she saw the boat.
Frank hoped so. He would have settled for seeing either of the brothers. But Frank hoped that if it was David who’d brought the boat over, he’d see Oliver with him. But there was only one boy standing outside of Frank and Rudy’s house, and Frank was annoyed that from the distance, he couldn’t tell which one it was. As they got closer, however, Frank smiled to himself as he looked over the boy’s nervous stance as he fisted the bottom of his t-shirt and regarded the house anxiously like he wasn’t sure he wanted to approach it. Body language alone told him that he was dealing with Oliver Martin. The way the boy finally noticed them coming and grinned widely told Frank the same thing all over again.
“Frank!” Oliver waved, but as he went to meet Frank and Rudy, he seemed less animated than Frank remembered from their previous visits.
“Hi, Oliver,” Rudy said politely as they reached each other. “I saw your boat, do you think we can ride in it if it doesn’t rain?”
Oliver looked pleased. “That would be fun, Rudy. D’you like frogs?”
Rudy made a face. “They’re slimy.”
Oliver frowned. “There’s nothing wrong with being slimy.”
Rudy giggled. “Yeah, it’s gross.”
“Oh... well I’ve got a lucky chicken.”
Rudy made another face.
“What makes a chicken lucky?”
Oliver told her it just was, and Rudy began to ask him another whole list about the bird, but Frank wasn’t really paying attention to their conversation. He was looking Oliver over, not sure what to make of what he saw. There was something different. Like, Oliver seemed tired. Looked it. The circles under his eyes weren’t exactly dark, but noticeable because his complexion seemed pale today, even beneath the shadows of the clouds. His face seemed dirty at first, but upon closer inspection, Frank realized that it was as smooth as always, shining from the humidity, and the dark spots he could just barely make out looked like faded bruises.
“I’m glad you came over, Oliver,” Frank interrupted the conversation between his sister and their guest. He wasn’t really sure who he’d cut off, but no one seemed to mind. “I’ve been wondering where you were.”
“I was at home, Frank. I wanted to see you. So now I’m here.”
“Since Oliver’s here, can we play cards, Frank?” Rudy asked. “Last time he told me he’d show me how to play poker.”
Frank raised an eyebrow at that, but shrugged and gave his sister a nod. “Sure, if you can find the cards.”
“Come on, Oliver!” Rudy called as she moved ahead of them into the house.
Frank watched as Oliver watched Rudy, looking bemused. He patted Oliver’s shoulder to get his attention. “Come on, let’s go inside, okay? It’s a lot cleaner this time, I promise.”
Oliver smiled as he walked up the stairs alongside Frank. “That’s okay, Frank. I don’t care if it’s not clean,” he insisted, but when they walked into the cleared-out and organized living room, his eyes widened. “Wow!”
Frank laughed as he pulled Oliver into the house. “My mom’s working in town,” Frank explained. “I wanted to go see you, but I’ve had to watch my sister... are you alright, Oliver?”
“Are you sure?” Frank asked, getting a little closer to provide himself with a better inspection. “Were you sick or something?”
Oliver cocked his head, like it might help him understand the question better. The corner of his mouth turned up in amusement. “I don’t remember, Frank. Why wouldn’t I be okay?”
“You don’t remember?”
Oliver shrugged as his gaze shifted from Frank’s. He moved further into the room, and for a moment, Frank worried that he was going to avoid the question. But Oliver didn’t seem to have that problem today. “Sometimes I don’t remember stuff,” Oliver explained, and then added defensively, “but my mom says it doesn’t make me wrong, just different. I’m not wrong, Frank.”
“I know you’re not,” Frank replied seriously. “It’s just... well, you look kind of...”
Oliver frowned, and turned his head down to look himself over the best he could. “What’s wrong with the way I look, Frank?”
“Nothing,” Frank said quickly. “You look... you’re... there’s nothing wrong with the way you look, Oliver. It’s just, well, you seem tired. Or something. Do you feel tired?”
“A little,” Oliver admitted. “And my eyes have been hurting.” He suddenly looked concerned. “Do you think I’m sick, Frank?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so, Oliver. Look... did someone hurt you?” Frank had been afraid to ask the question, but managed to get it out, anyway.
“The witch that used to live here threw a rock at my head once.”
Frank sighed, and gently grabbed Oliver’s arm to lead him over to the sofa. “That’s not what I meant, Oliver. I meant... since the last time I saw you. Your mom seemed kind of angry when I took you home, remember? Did she...”
“My mom wouldn’t hurt me, Frank,” Oliver said somewhat angrily, and Frank was immediately reminded that while Oliver could seem childlike, it was best not to approach him like one. He seemed to understand more than he was given credit for. Maybe he didn’t yet understand the reason for Frank’s questioning, but he could obviously see where it was leading. It seemed safe to conclude that he didn’t like it.
“I’m sorry, it’s just... I’ve been worried about you. And, you look like something happened. You know if your parents did do something to you, you could tell me, Oliver. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you.”
Oliver studied Frank for a long moment as he leaned further back into the sofa, and then smiled. “I know that, Frank. That’s why I like you.”
“So do you trust me then?” Frank asked. “Can you at least tell me where you’ve been all week... you said you were going to come back but never did.”
“I couldn’t,” Oliver said, looking sheepish as he lowered his voice to a whisper. “My mom and dad said I shouldn’t visit you anymore.”
“Why not?” Frank asked, even though what Oliver was saying didn’t surprise him.
“Don’t know... they don’t like me talking to people sometimes because people are mean... but you’re not, Frank. That’s why I wanted to see you. They wouldn’t let me, so I went out the window like David,” he explained, looking pleased with himself. “David showed me how to break their lock. They don’t know I’m here, Frank... I’m gonna be in trouble when I go home.”
Frank frowned at that. No he wouldn’t, he decided. Frank wasn’t sure what exactly was wrong with Oliver’s parents, but at this point he was positive that it was something. He had a sickening feeling that getting into trouble in the Martin house involved more than a time out and a missed dessert. He didn’t want Oliver to go back there. And, while that might not have been possible, Frank would do his best to keep Oliver with him for as long as possible. At least, until his mom came home. He could talk to her. She might think he was overreacting again, but at least Frank knew she would listen.
“Don’t worry about that, okay? My mom will be home in a few hours. I’ll ask her to talk to your parents and find out... we’ll see if they’ll let you visit.”
Oliver looked thoughtful. “Do you think your mom would do that, Frank?”
Frank smiled. “Sure she will... I’ll ask her to see if David can visit, too. Did he tell you I met him?” When Oliver shook his head, Frank explained how he’d met David the same day that he’d wanted Oliver to go into town with him. But as he told Oliver about the time he’d spent with his brother, Frank couldn’t help noticing that Oliver appeared troubled by it, more than anything. Frank almost felt guilty for that, deciding that Oliver felt left out because he hadn’t been included in the outing, but instead of apologizing for it, Frank finished by asking Oliver another question that he felt was more important at the moment. “Oliver? Where’s David now? He’s not in trouble, is he?”
Frank didn’t get his answer. Rudy appeared in the living room, excited over the deck of cards she’d found. It seemed to distract Oliver from the conversation, and Frank didn’t want to bring it up again until they were alone. In the meantime, Frank and Rudy enjoyed Oliver’s company, and playing a game of cards with him was a nice change from the isolation from anyone other than their own company, and the work they’d been doing to help their mom while she was gone.
Oliver managed to surprise Frank again as they played poker for chocolate chip cookies. Apparently, he was rather fond of the game, and had no problem explaining it to Rudy as they played in a team against Frank. Oliver, whose expression often said everything for him, turned out to have such a great poker face that Frank never stood a chance. But, he had fun, and laughed when both Rudy and Oliver complained of stomach aches when they ate too many of their winnings.
It started to rain, just as Frank had thought it would, but this time the storm wasn’t nearly as nerve-racking. It was only a light sprinkle, but the clouds turned the sky dark and the three of them set out around the house to turn on lights as a result. Oliver still seemed nervous every time he ran into a cat, and did his best to avoid them, which is why Frank made sure to chase the one hiding under the bed out of his room when Oliver took an interest in his computer.
Rudy was downstairs painting her paint-by-numbers, listening to boy-band music, and to avoid his sister’s off-key voice singing along with it, Frank hid in his room, stretched out on his bed and watched Oliver. Oliver was at an old card table, converted into a desk, and appeared fascinated with a game on the computer that allowed him to build cities, only to destroy them with natural disasters, or sometimes more unnatural disasters. Like Godzilla.
“Are places with this many buildings really that busy?” Oliver asked as he looked over the city he’d constructed over the last hour. “My mom says the stuff we see on TV is just Hollywood.”
“Sometimes,” Frank replied. “Haven’t you ever been away from here, Oliver? I mean, not just to town, but to... somewhere else?”
Oliver glanced over his shoulder to meet Frank’s eyes. “One time. I was too little to remember. We went to see my grandma in New Mexico when she died. That’s when I fell.”
Frank sat up. “How did you fall?”
Oliver ran his fingers through his hair, but they lingered there on his head, as if searching for something. “My dad said he couldn’t catch me in time. He feels real bad about that. It’s not his fault, though. I wanted to see the bird outside the window... I don’t remember it. But it wasn’t a lucky chicken, Frank.”
“You fell out a window?”
Oliver nodded. “Broke my head right open. Don’t remember what happened after. I didn’t wake up for a long time. But the doctors fixed me. Wanna feel it?”
Frank nodded curiously as Oliver continued to rub at his head when he left the chair to sit next to Frank on the bed.
“You can feel it everywhere,” Oliver said quietly as he tilted his head towards Frank.
“Does it hurt?” Frank asked.
“No,” Oliver replied. “But it’s like... I can always feel that the scars are there.”
Frank lifted his hand, convinced he wasn’t going to hurt anything, and hesitated only a moment before placing his palm over the top of Oliver’s head. The hair was thick, surprisingly soft. Frank found himself pushing it back before he remembered what he was supposed to be doing and found Oliver’s scalp with gentle fingers. It didn’t take him long to find what Oliver was talking about. In fact, it was difficult to miss, and Frank was surprised by the extent of the rough patches of skin beneath his fingers as he traced the lines. One was crooked, jagged and rough. Others were more precise, and if a doctor had been responsible for them, Frank was certain that it had been from more than one surgery.
“I’m sorry, Oliver,” Frank said, before he could stop himself. He heard pity in his own voice, and was almost afraid to meet Oliver’s eyes to find out what he thought of that. But, Oliver only seemed unexpectedly amused as he leaned his head heavier into Frank’s palm, much like those cats liked to do when they got his attention, Frank thought. Instead of finding it unusual, however, Frank continued moving his fingers over Oliver’s scalp, nearly expecting the other boy to start purring. It was when Frank’s eyes fell to some of the shadows over Oliver’s face and brushed his thumb over one, that Oliver suddenly flinched and pulled back. Frank lowered his hand slowly, not willing to let go of the other boy’s eyes as they faced him somewhat accusingly. “I don’t know what you remember, Oliver,” Frank said, “but I think something happened to you.”
Oliver frowned, and for a moment, Frank thought he was going to say something defensive. But instead, it was a look of extreme concentration that crossed his face as he lifted his hand to his face, gingerly touching at sore places.
“Oliver, what’s the last thing you remember before...” Frank paused when the sound of slowly falling raindrops outside was interrupted by a purring engine and tires moving over wet gravel. He stood, moving to his window long enough to look out to the driveway. There was a yellow truck pulling up against the side of the house, and having never seen it before, Frank watched curiously, wondering who was visiting. But, as his eyes focused on the image through the glass of the front windshield, it became all too apparent that this visitor wasn’t one he currently wanted to welcome into his home, if Oliver’s mother sitting in the passenger side of the bench seat was any indication. It wasn’t her that worried Frank, though. It was the large man behind the steering wheel, currently unfastening his seat belt.
It didn’t occur to Frank to think through his next actions as he spun away from the window and approached Oliver hurriedly. “We have to go,” he stated.
“Where are we going, Frank?” Oliver asked, obviously startled by his host’s abruptness.
“For a walk, I could use some fresh air,” Frank said as he grabbed Oliver’s hand and practically yanked him off the bed and out the bedroom door. “Couldn’t you?”
“It’s raining, Frank.”
“That’s okay. Come on, I’ve got a jacket you can borrow.” Frank rushed Oliver down the narrow hallway and to the back door, where he was quick about grabbing his only hooded jacket out of the closet and shoving it at Oliver. “Put it on, I’ll be right back.”
“But what’re you gonna wear?” Oliver wanted to know.
Frank smiled as reassuring of a smile as he could. “I’ll be fine,” he insisted, but didn’t feel that way when the sound of someone rapping on the door echoed through the house, over Rudy’s music.
“I think someone’s knocking on your door, Frank,” Oliver observed as he pulled on the jacket.
“It’s probably just the wind,” Frank said, earning himself a strange look from Oliver as he headed towards the living room. “I’ll be right back.”
Frank reached the front door just in time to keep his sister from answering it. He grabbed her tiny wrist and yanked her back, provoking a startled gasp from the girl that he simply didn’t have time to pay attention to. “Don’t answer that!” he hissed.
Rudy pulled her arm away from him, looking irritated. “Why not--hey! Frank!” He’d wrapped an arm around her waist, and with no explanation Frank had lifted Rudy’s feet right off the ground to rush her to the back door.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
“Oliver’s parents are here,” he said hastily. He was better off simply telling her. If she started asking questions, Frank didn’t see how that would help anyone.
“Then shouldn’t we tell Oliver...”
“No!” Frank stated, and put her down before they reached the kitchen to place his hands on her shoulders and look her in the eye. “Rudy, we’ve gotta keep them away from him until Mom gets home, okay?”
Rudy looked confused, but not one to argue when her young mind sensed a serious situation, she simply nodded, and they both looked towards the front door when the knocking only got louder. Frank frowned. He was certain that Oliver’s parents could hear Rudy’s music, and they likely suspected that someone was home. He didn’t know if they’d have the nerve to let themselves in, and he didn’t want to stick around to find out. He ushered Rudy into the kitchen, where Oliver was still waiting by the door, having trouble with the zipper on Frank’s jacket.
“Get your coat on, Rudy,” Frank ordered, even as he lifted his sister’s coat for her and wrapped it around her shoulders. As Rudy pushed her arms through the sleeves, Frank turned to Oliver and zipped up the coat for him after a few good tugs. Oliver’s brows raised in response. He didn’t seem to understand what the big hurry was supposed to be about, but he didn’t really complain when Frank practically pushed him and Rudy through the door.
“I really think someone’s knocking,” Oliver said, looking back as Frank closed up the house.
“So they’ll come back, later,” Frank said, ducking his head, as if it would defend him from the raindrops now wetting his face and hair. “Let’s go this way. I haven’t been this way before.”
Rudy looked disgruntled as she held her jacket closed, but rushed to hold onto Frank’s hand as he led the way away from the house, making sure to avoid the yellow truck parked alongside the house, and Oliver followed behind them, seeming alright with the entire situation.
That was good, Frank decided. All he wanted to do was get Oliver out of sight. Maybe it was unjustified. Maybe he was overreacting in the stupidest way possible, but he wasn’t going to feel better until his mom arrived home and figured out what was going on for him. Until then, he simply didn’t trust Oliver’s parents. But, Frank was so focused on getting Oliver out of sight as they headed straight into the woods and up the hill that he’d completely forgotten that he was also attempting to prevent Oliver from seeing the elder Martins. Which incidentally, didn’t work out so well.
Rudy had slipped in the mud, and after catching her, Frank had decided to carry her on his back. She was still small for her age, but recently she’d grown past the point of being able to ride on his shoulders. Either way, he didn’t mind since she gave him a little extra cover. He felt like he was getting rained on twice, first from the water falling from the sky, and then the drops falling from the trees. He stared at his feet as he trekked uphill, unable to wipe the water running down his forehead and into his eyes while he carried his sister. He was so focused on distancing them all from the house and the road that he didn’t notice that Oliver was no longer on his heels until Rudy insistently patted his shoulder.
“Frank! Frank, look.”
Frank stopped, turned around, and froze when he realized that straight through the trees back behind him, the entire side of his house, along with the yellow truck, was visible. Oliver’s parents had come around the corner, and were talking in front of the vehicle, and not far off but still hidden, Oliver stood watching them. Frank put Rudy down and took a step forward, wanting to call out to Oliver, but was afraid he’d be heard. And then he didn’t have to call out.
Oliver suddenly looked in Frank’s direction, and their eyes met, but for Frank, he was facing something unreadable. There was no crooked smile on Oliver’s face, but there was no sign of confusion or anger, either. Frank felt like he was being watched like someone who’d been caught in a lie. Perhaps that’s exactly what he was. Oliver was insistent that his parents would never harm him, so Frank worried how he’d react when he figured out what Frank was doing. But when realization did seem to come over Oliver, he didn’t seem displeased at all. Just understanding. And better yet, he didn’t call out to his parents.
Frank released a breath when Oliver slowly backed away from where he stood, and when he reached Frank and Rudy, all three of them moved out of sight together. They continued on silently for a while. Frank didn’t know where they were going once he couldn’t see his house anymore, but Oliver picked up the lead then, and Frank trusted that he knew the area well enough not to get them lost. At least, he hoped that was the case, since he was beginning to regret not wearing a jacket. The rain slowed to a drizzle, and then died completely, but his clothes were wet now, and he was cold. Rudy at least seemed comfortable as she moved ahead of them every time she saw a squirrel.
With Oliver, Frank couldn’t tell how comfortable he was. It was hard to, when he suddenly felt like he needed to avoid Oliver’s eyes. It felt to Frank as if something uncomfortable was passing between them. He didn’t know if Oliver felt it, too, but Frank could definitely feel the other boy’s eyes glancing in his direction every so often. And they kept moving closer together, side by side, step for step. Frank didn’t know if it happened naturally, or intentionally, but the closer Oliver got, the more difficult the continuing silence became to Frank. Even Rudy was silent as she walked on her own.
“I’m sorry, Oliver,” Frank finally said. “I didn’t want them to take you home yet. I should have told you.”
Oliver didn’t initially respond, causing Frank to look worriedly in his direction, but it was only to find that Oliver was removing the borrowed jacket, and before Frank could ask him what he was doing, his was placing the warm material over Frank’s shoulders.
“I didn’t want to go with them, Frank.”
Frank sighed. “Listen, Oliver, no matter what happens, I won’t let you get in trouble. I’ll say it’s my fault, and I’ll ask my mom to talk to them. She’ll...”
“They don’t like to listen, Frank. They say it’s bad for me to leave. I don’t want to make them angry... but my mom always says, going out is getting in trouble.”
“That’s not right, though,” Frank insisted. “It’s not fair that you can’t do things just because... it’s not right, Oliver.”
“David says that,” Oliver replied. “David’s always in trouble. He makes my mom and dad angry.”
“Why? Because he likes to go outside?” Frank asked, feeling disgusted.
“No, Frank. I think he likes it.”
“What? You mean, getting in trouble?”
Oliver nodded. “David gets angry, too. He’s always angry, Frank.”
Oliver considered the question, and then shook his head. “No. He’s my brother, Frank. But he doesn’t like my mom or my dad. He likes to make them angry.”
“Oliver... is David in trouble now?”
“He’s always in trouble,” Oliver said again, and then asked Frank a question he never expected. “Do you like David more than me, Frank?”
“I know he’s better,” Oliver said, sliding his hands into his pockets as he continued to walk. “David’s like me. But better.”
Frank nearly laughed at the notion, but caught himself.
“That’s not true, Oliver. The two of you are just different, that’s all. Besides, isn’t David the one always getting into trouble?” Maybe Frank was suspicious that some of that trouble was bullshit, but after meeting David, he did have to leave room that there was probably a reason for at least some of it.
“That doesn’t make David bad,” Oliver said defensively, obviously misunderstanding what Frank meant.
“No,” Frank agreed. “Look, I only meant that he’s not any better than you, alright?” Frank attempted a friendly smile, and playfully punched Oliver’s arm to get his attention. “You shouldn’t think things like that.”
Oliver’s smile was a slow, small one as they returned to walking in silence, and as Frank focused ahead on Rudy, he decided that maybe it was time for their conversation to lighten up a little. It was true he had questions, and he was concerned over many things regarding Oliver and his family, especially the current well-being of David. Oliver wasn’t looking great as it was, and Frank couldn’t help wondering if David was in the same condition. But, unless he wanted to turn back and deal with the Martin parents on his own, there wasn’t much he could do about it for the time being, except to enjoy the unexpected nature walk, despite the cold. Besides, Oliver’s curious questions had Frank wanting to reassure the other boy that he really did enjoy his company. But then, that became difficult to do when Oliver suddenly began to shout at Frank’s sister.
“No! Don’t go down there!”
Frank jumped at the harsh tone, and didn’t appreciate the way his heart froze in his chest when ahead of them, Rudy nearly lost her footing because of it where the land had been eroded to a steep drop. Rudy hardly had time to recover before Oliver had rushed her, grabbing one of her wrists with both hands to pull her back. She made a shrill, startled sound and tried to pull her arm back, but Oliver refused to release her.
“You can’t go down there!” he shouted. “Never do that!”
“Okay! Oliver, let go!” Rudy demanded.
“It’s a very bad place, Rudy!” Oliver persisted, and Frank had enough when his sister’s eyes turned to him, seeming panicked.
“Hey! Knock it off!” Frank rushed forward, separating Oliver from his sister by moving between them where he placed two hands on Oliver’s chest and shoved him back, an action he didn’t put much thought into as he turned to face Rudy. “Are you alright?” he asked her.
Rudy nodded, seeming flushed and confused as she glanced past Frank at Oliver accusingly, and then down the drop, which Frank followed her gaze to. It was easy to see what had managed to grab his sister’s attention. Another cat. But, this one didn’t look like the wild felines that snuck through the cracks and into their house. It was more like someone’s pampered pet Persian, and was lazily watching them, its thick white coat practically glowing against its dark surroundings as it finally turned and disappeared into the brush.
Frank frowned, not sure what was going on. The drop was steep but not that far, and he doubted it led to anything horrible, except for maybe the lake. He could see water, likely another hidden cove. Not sure what was going on, Frank turned back to Oliver, intending to seek an explanation.
But Oliver had backed away from the siblings, and practically cowering where he stood, he avoided Frank’s eyes while Frank struggled to make something of the outburst, and then felt guilty for reacting the way he did. “Oliver...” he started, but was met with something akin to a wall when Oliver suddenly covered his face with his hands and turned his back.
“I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to.”
Frank exchanged a glance with his sister, each of them bewildered, but sympathetic.
“I didn’t mean to yell at him,” Rudy whispered. “He’s not gonna cry, is he Frank?” She sounded horrified. In Rudy’s world, boys were not supposed to cry.
Frank shook his head at his sister, gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder, and then moved towards Oliver to approach him on his own. “Oliver, are you alright?” Frank asked. He didn’t get an initial response, and found himself reaching out to touch the other boy’s shoulder. Oliver didn’t flinch, but turned slowly to peek at Frank through his raised fingers.
“Are you angry, Frank?”
Frank considered the question, and then shook his head. “We’re okay,” he said, glancing back at his sister. “Why’d you get upset, Oliver?”
Oliver lowered his hands and shook his head. “We’re not supposed to go down there.”
“Why not?” Frank asked, looking back towards the drop. “It’s just water, Oliver.” He took a step forward, as if he were headed right for it, when Oliver suddenly grabbed his wrist the same way he had Rudy’s.
Frank frowned as he looked back at Oliver, who was obviously disturbed by something.
“Oliver,” he said, becoming impatient. “If there’s something down there...”
“I just don’t like it, Frank. Please don’t go down there.”
Frank stared at Oliver for a long moment, trying to read him. His curiosity was definitely piqued. But, when Rudy came to claim his free hand he found that his sister suddenly looked as nervous as Oliver did.
“Frank, don’t do it,” she insisted. “I wanna go home now. Can we just go home?”
Frank sighed, and glancing between the two of them, he gave in. “Fine. Let’s go back. But slowly, okay? I don’t know if Mom’s back yet.”
Rudy nodded, and Oliver smiled as the three turned and walked back in the direction they’d come from. None of them saw the tall figure watching from a careful distance through a clear lens, and they didn’t hear the click of the camera as it recorded their every step until they were completely out of sight.
Jessica Seaberg did her best to stay composed, feeling way too much like the dozens of parents she herself had called into her classroom over the years to tell them of their offspring’s wrongdoings. Reactions were never quite the same when it came to parents, but from experience she knew that the majority usually experienced enough disappointment to never want to experience such a situation again. And unfortunately when it came to Jessica’s oldest child, she was not an amateur when it came to wondering what on earth he could have been thinking.
It wasn’t that he was a bad kid. In her extremely biased opinion, Frank was the greatest boy who’d ever graced the earth. Rudy might have been her baby, but then, so was he. When he was young, he’d been curious, rambunctious, and most definitely loving towards his family. And of course, at seventeen he still had a few of those qualities. But, at seventeen, he was also argumentative, too cool for his britches, and on some occasions, impossible.
Jessica considered taking off with his sister and a neighbor’s kid just to hide him from the kid’s parents, impossible. Not to mention, misguided and foolish. He hadn’t been thinking, obviously. And, he was most definitely in trouble. She’d just have to deal with it later since at the moment, she had her own trouble sitting right in her living room, and it was in the form of Oliver Martin’s worried parents.
This, is what she’d come home to. Not the hot bath and family dinner she’d counted on. No, Frank was definitely out to frustrate her. But, at least the house was presentable for visitors. She put on the best smile she could manage when she rejoined the Martins in the living room with the sugar-free iced tea they’d requested. Instant tea, the powdered kind. From what she’d already gathered from the locals, it was practically unacceptable, but it’s what she had, so they’d have to deal.
“I’m really sorry about this,” she said. “I’m sure the kids will be back soon.”
The Martins took their drinks. Mrs. Martin, who’d insisted that Jessica call her Mary, took one look at her glass and politely set it aside. Brian Martin, with his friendly face but standoffish attitude, took a sip and had the nerve to flinch. “They’d better be,” he said. “And I hope your boy doesn’t get Oliver into any trouble. Our son already has enough troubles without him adding to them.”
“Brian,” Mary said, in a scolding tone before she smiled at Jessica. “We’re sure they’re fine... it’s just, Oliver is a special-needs boy. He was never supposed to leave the house. We’d just die if anything happened to him, you see.”
“I know they were here,” Brian added. “Your boy must’ve snuck him out the back.”
Jessica had no doubt. “Look, Frank might have his faults, but he’s a good kid. There’s still a chance he didn’t even know you were here. I think we should wait and see what he has to say. Are you sure I can’t offer you anything to eat? It’s getting close to dinnertime, and...”
“We’ll have our supper at home,” Mary insisted. “I’ve got a roast waiting.”
“We’ll be telling Oliver not to come around here, anymore,” Mr. Martin said. “He won’t be bothering you. We’d appreciate it if you’d tell your boy to do the same.”
Jessica tried not to frown as she studied the two adults sitting on her sofa as subtly as possible. They seemed nice enough, she supposed, except that they seemed to be under the impression that her own son was a hooligan, and she didn’t like that at all. She considered them both for a long moment, wondering if she even liked these people. It was already obvious that Frank didn’t, and as she recalled what he’d happened to mention to her, she wondered if he was justified there. He certainly hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d mentioned that the Martins liked to keep a tight leash on their children.
“You know,” Jessica said conversationally, “I’ll be teaching at the high school this fall. Can I expect to see your boys?” Sometimes disgruntled parents simply responded better when they realized they were talking to a teacher. Sometimes. Not always.
The Martins exchanged a meaningful glance that seemed somewhat troubled to Jessica. But then, they’d seemed troubled since she’d arrived home and found them waiting outside of the house.
“We homeschool ours,” Mary Martin replied. “Like I said, Oliver is a special-needs child.”
“But he’s smart,” Brian cut in. “A real smart boy.”
Jessica smiled, happy to hear him at least mention pride in his son. “Well, what about David? Is he in school?”
Mary and Brian Martin sat across from Jessica, looking fearful of their answer, as if it would be the wrong one. “No,” Brian answered.
“Is he special needs, too?” Jessica asked curiously. “Frank says they’re twins.”
“No,” Mary replied. “Oliver and David... they’re not the same. David is...”
“They’re very close,” Brian cut his wife off. “David wouldn’t want to be away from his brother.”
“I see.” Jessica faked a smile. She was beginning to see what Frank had a problem with. Although, while she suspected her son simply felt that the Martins were overly strict, the teacher in her had concerns for the well-being of two boys who were being brought up in a questionable manner. She’d met Oliver, and while he wasn’t the kind of friend Frank usually brought home, he didn’t seem to be in need of constant supervision. As for David, she suspected that it had to be difficult for a boy his age to be kept away from other kids like himself. Not to mention, she doubted that either of them could be getting a proper education at home. “So, do you have a tutor for your boys?”
“I teach them,” Mary supplied.
“And she does a fine job,” Brian said defensively.
Jessica nodded, and addressed Mary again. Mrs. Martin seemed a little easier to talk to than her husband. “I’m sure you do. Oliver seems like a great kid. You know, if you ever need help putting lessons together... or any advice, well, I’d be happy to help you out.”
Mary actually looked pleased. It was the reaction Jessica was aiming for, so she made a point to ignore the suspicious look on Brian’s face.
“I really would like that,” Mary said. “I’ve been working with a few teachers from the school, but to have one so close by...”
“We’ll see, Mrs. Seaberg,” Brian interrupted, flashing a warning look at Mary, who grew silent quickly.
Jessica frowned. “It’s Ms.” she corrected him.
“You’re not married?” Mary asked.
“In the process of a divorce, Mrs. Martin,” Jessica replied. “My kids and I are here to make a fresh start.”
“Oh, then,” Mary replied. “I’m sorry.”
Jessica opened her mouth to say that there was nothing to be sorry for, but suddenly stopped herself. Perhaps playing the sympathy card would work the best on these people. “Well, it has been hard,” she said, which wasn’t a complete lie. “Especially on Frank, you know. There aren’t very many people around here his age. I think he was really happy to meet your boys. He’s only mentioned David, but I know he enjoys seeing Oliver.”
“I’m sure he’ll make plenty of friends,” Brian Martin insisted. “Other than Oliver.”
Jessica frowned, not bothering to hide it this time. “Mr. Martin, I promise you that Frank is a good kid. If he did purposely run off today--and I’m not saying he did. But, if he did, I believe that he at least thinks he has a good reason for it...” Jessica paused, sighing as she looked between the Martins. “It’s possible that Frank was concerned for Oliver. And I mean no offense, but, you have to admit that it’s kind of... unusual, for you to keep your children completely isolated from everyone else their age, and I’m not one to lecture, but I have to tell you that it’s not only strange, it’s also unhealthy. You can’t expect either of your boys to ever grow up if...”
“Excuse me,” Mary Martin interrupted, sounding as offended as Jessica had expected her to. “We are protecting... Oliver has special needs.”
“Yes, you keep saying that,” Jessica remarked. “And, I’m sure some of his needs aren’t those of other boys his age, but if your children were getting everything they needed, Mrs. Martin, then they probably wouldn’t be running off on you every time the opportunity presented itself.”
“That’s enough.” Brian Martin looked about ready to come out of his chair, he was glaring at Jessica so hard. But, she refused to be intimidated. “I’m sure you mean well, Ms. Seaberg, but my wife and I handle ours just fine on our own.”
“Of course you do,” Jessica replied. “And I’m sure it must be very hard with two teenagers. But let’s face it, kids will rebel, even those with special needs. Wouldn’t it be possible to arrange something for our children? At least that way when they see each other you’ll know about it. Surely, between the three of us we can work something out.”
Once again, the Martins looked to each other, sending silent messages. Still nervous, Jessica observed. Good. She wasn’t sure that she liked them very much. In fact, she was beginning to wonder if Frank was onto something when he’d voiced concerns over the Martin children. And she most definitely had concerns. Most parents wouldn’t react the way these two had when their child made a new friend. And, while she hadn’t yet met David, she questioned his well-being. >From her personal standpoint, she felt that even Oliver could be in a public school, but could understand at least in his case, why he wasn’t. David, however, seemed to lead a bleak existence. There was no excuse whatsoever when it came to why he was as isolated as his brother, and at the moment, she blamed their parents for it. But, Jessica Seaberg had learned not to judge people on first impressions alone. She was certain that she didn’t have all the information. Whether that was because the Martins were hiding something, or simply hadn’t confided in her yet, she didn’t know. But, she was willing to listen. Especially, when Mrs. Marin’s next words managed to catch her attention.
“Ms. Seaberg--Jessica, please... We love Oliver, our boys. We know that most people would never understand...”
“What my wife is trying to say,” Brian Martin interrupted again, this time reaching for Mary’s hand in a supportive gesture, “is that we know what’s best for them. But what you need to understand, is that we’re not just doing this for Oliver. I assure you, keeping our children apart is what’s best for your son, too.”
“I don’t know, Oliver. Are you sure you want to go that way?” Frank asked, his voice thick with amusement. Frank could feel the other boy’s lashes flicking against the palm of his hands, which gently covered Oliver’s eyes. Oliver nodded at the question, and Frank could practically feel the smile on his face. “Alright then.”
Oliver proceeded ahead slowly, but not without Frank literally on his heels, acting as a human blindfold. Rudy followed behind both of them, not understanding why the two guys in her company thought any of this was very fun.
After Oliver’s outburst, Frank had sought to lighten the mood. Oliver had provided the opportunity when Rudy didn’t recognize where they were and asked if they were lost. He’d commented that he could get back to Frank’s house with his eyes closed, and Frank had decided to challenge him to do just that. So far, Oliver wasn’t doing too bad. He was at least going in the right direction, and seemed to be enjoying the game. On occasion he’d lift his hands to Frank’s, as if he wanted to uncover his eyes. Each time, Frank gladly removed his hands, but only so he could tickle Oliver with them, discovering that the dark-haired boy was most sensitive to such attacks beneath the ribs, and often burst into fits of laughter before Frank even touched him.
“Is it the right way, Frank?” Oliver asked as he brought his hands over Frank’s again, but this time held them closer to his face. “I can’t see.”
Frank laughed, guiding Oliver away from some bushes. “I know,” he replied, and then dropped his hands from Oliver’s eyes, even as Oliver continued to hold the left.
Oliver looked around for a moment, and then turned to Frank, grinning. “I know where we are.”
“I know where we are, too,” Rudy said impatiently, and walked off past both of them.
“Hey!” Frank called after her. “Get back here!”
“That’s okay, Frank,” Oliver said. “Your house is right over there.”
Frank looked in the direction Oliver had nodded in, and supposed that he was right. But, he still would have been a little worried about what his sister was walking into if a moment later, she hadn’t called out that their mother was home. Frank released a sigh of relief, but still hoped that Oliver’s parents were gone by now.
Frank turned back to Oliver and found that he was watching him silently. His hair was still damp from the rain and had fallen into his eyes, sticking to his lashes, and his mouth was quirked into an unsure smile, which faded when Frank lowered his eyes to where Oliver still held his hand. For a brief moment, instinct told Frank to pull away from the contact, but when Oliver seemed to pick up on it and began to let go, Frank only tightened his grip until Oliver met his eyes.
Frank felt something. He wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but he didn’t like the unsettling feeling that it brought to his gut. It was like feeling anxious for no apparent reason. He didn’t necessarily care if he was in trouble at the moment. He could handle being grounded. With his mom close by, the prospect of facing the Martin parents didn’t necessarily frighten him. It was something else. This place, he decided. The lake, the forest, the town, even the room where he slept at night--it was all wrong. He did his best to be helpful to his mother and in return she tolerated his complaints, because sometimes, complaining just plain made him feel better. He was adjusting to the changes his life had taken the best he could. But Frank wasn’t happy. He wasn’t really happy with anything. But then, Oliver was like the opposite of Frank’s troubles. Most of the time.
Frank didn’t want Oliver to go home. He didn’t want to be told that he couldn’t see him anymore. He wanted this friendship. It perplexed him, really, because Frank knew he could make other friends. But he wanted this one, and suddenly, Frank felt like letting go of Oliver’s hand would be like letting go of the few moments of peace that he’d had since his arrival. Even if there were aspects of Oliver that were anything but peaceful.
Perhaps, he was feeling anxious for Oliver. “It’s okay to tell me if your parents don’t treat you and David right. My dad didn’t treat me right... it was wrong of him to leave. He was wrong to me. It’s hard to say it, Oliver. But I do, because it’s true.”
Oliver frowned. “My dad’s not going anywhere, Frank.”
“Okay, but if he... or your mom, if they’re doing something else...” Frank paused, sighing when Oliver’s expression only registered confusion. It was what Frank found most frustrating about him. Oliver wasn’t an idiot. And yet, there were some things he didn’t seem to understand. Or, didn’t want to. Or didn’t remember enough to understand, Frank thought. He had the sudden desire to find out more about why Oliver forgot things. Why he couldn’t remember. He had a feeling that until he did, he’d run into this kind of difficulty every time he tried to reach Oliver. “Never mind... maybe we’ll talk about it later. Come on.” Frank gave Oliver’s hand a gentle tug, and together they headed towards Frank’s house. It was a good thing his mom was home. He needed to convince her to help him get around the Martins. And not just because Frank wanted to keep seeing Oliver. Now, Frank decided, he needed to see David again. If Oliver was truly missing important details concerning his own life, then it was possible that David was Frank’s only chance to find out what was going on. Besides, after seeing Oliver looking so poor, he wanted to see that David was alright for himself. Unfortunately, Frank had a feeling that dealing with David might prove to be more of a challenge than he wanted to admit, no matter what condition he found him in.
“I don’t understand why you’re so upset, Frank. I just spent a very miserable hour talking to the Martins on your behalf, and I don’t think it’s too much for them to ask that you let them know when you and Oliver are visiting. You still get to see him--you’re welcome, by the way.”
Frank had been home for less than fifteen minutes, but things weren’t going exactly as he’d hoped they would. It was true that he’d been pleased to find that the Martins were gone, and his mother was waiting for him--surprisingly, decidedly not ready to ground him on the spot. Although, she did have plenty to say to him about being rude to the neighbors. And even better, one of the first things she’d told both Frank and Oliver was that Oliver was allowed to stay for dinner. The trouble had started, when she mentioned that Mr. Martin would arrive afterwards to take Oliver home. Frank had been quick to voice his disapproval, which resulted in Rudy being told to go fold her laundry, and Oliver sent to Frank’s room to once again, borrow some dry clothes, even though Frank could have used them more than him.
“Mom, you can’t let them take him!” Frank insisted, pacing the living room. It was an unreasonable demand and he knew it. “Didn’t you even see him? He looks...something’s wrong. I mean, it’s not as bad as earlier. I swear, he looked like he hadn’t slept in days.”
“Well, maybe he hasn’t.”
“And it looks like someone’s been pushing him around.”
“Something’s not right. I don’t trust those people.”
“Well, you can’t just go around making accusations like that,” Mrs. Seaberg replied. “Listen, Frank, I spoke to the Martins. Sweetheart, they might be a little strange, but I promise you, they love their kids very much. And, if Oliver says that they haven’t done anything to harm him than we have to take his word for it.”
“But Oliver doesn’t get it, Mom. I tried talking to him. He either doesn’t want to talk or he says he can’t even remember.”
Jessica sighed, and sat down, even though she felt like she should be standing just to keep up with Frank. “Frank, did you know Oliver had an accident when he was younger? It’s the reason why he’s the way he is.”
Frank frowned. He felt like he was going backwards. “Yes. I know. He told me about it today, alright? Just because he’s different doesn’t mean anyone has the right to push him around.”
Jessica smiled patiently. “Of course not. But, his parents told me a little more about that today, and if you’d let me finish, I think you might find some of it interesting.”
Frank flopped down into an arm chair and crossed his arms. “Fine. I’m listening.”
And he was. He was curious over what new information his mom might have regarding the situation. But since whatever it was came from Oliver’s parents, Frank found himself skeptical, and perhaps a little hesitant to accept it for fact, no matter how much it might make sense. He still listened, though. Waited for his mom to start talking, telling himself that he wouldn’t interrupt. She didn’t like it when he interrupted her. But, she never started talking. Instead, Jessica shot to her feet, the same way Frank did when they heard Rudy’s shrill scream coming from her room.
They exchanged glances. Frank was the first to roll his eyes. “Probably another rat,” he insisted.
Jessica still seemed concerned, and rushed to Rudy’s room, just in time to catch the petite redhead at the door. “What’s wrong?” Jessica demanded as Frank caught up to them.
Rudy’s eyes were wide as she pointed into her room accusingly.
“Rat?” Frank asked.
“No!” Rudy suddenly snapped, finding her voice as she looked at her mother. “There was someone outside my window!”
“What?” Jessica demanded.
“I was getting dressed!” Rudy continued. “Mom, he had a camera!”
Frank looked at his sister, feeling disturbed and outraged all at once before he headed towards the bedroom window.
“He what?” Jessica demanded, pulling Rudy into the hall, as if to shield her.
“Son of a bitch,” Frank muttered, looking out the window for any sign of the intruder that Rudy claimed was there.
“Now hold on a minute,” Jessica said. “Rudy, could it have been Oliver? Maybe he went outside...”
“Oliver doesn’t have a camera,” Frank cut her off, and as if on cue, Oliver came hesitantly down the hallway from Frank’s room.
Frank didn’t answer him. Something near the storage shed caught his eye. Too distinct to be a shadow, too tall to be an animal. Someone was lurking, and as every protective instinct Frank had took over he bolted out of the room, past his family and Oliver, and towards the front door.
“Frank! Wait a minute!” Jessica called. “Don’t go out there!” She had protective instincts of her own, and there was no way she wanted her child on his own for this one, with no way to call for help.
But Frank either didn’t hear her, or didn’t want to. He was already out the door and rushing towards the shed. He paused when he reached it, finding no one in sight. He heard his mother calling him from outside now, but movement to his left caught his attention and he spun just in time to see the end of a black coat disappear into the trees. “Hey!” he shouted. His angry shout only alerted the lurker to Frank’s presence, and he moved faster. Frank gave chase, thinking about the only person he knew who liked to take pictures of people while they weren’t looking.
The clouds were dispersing above, leaving the woods full of long shadows while the wind rattled the trees and made it nearly impossible for Frank to hear anything else around him. He inhaled the earthy scent left by the rain while his eyes watered and his lungs began to burn from exhaustion.
Frank didn’t know how long he’d been running. He was certain that not much time had passed, but he’d run so hard that he could feel the heels of his feet all the way to his knees, and the aches from his fall earlier in the week were beginning to aggravate him. But he was too close to stop, he told himself. He had yet to discover who the assailant was. Small glimpses when Frank got close only gave away that he was dealing with a male who was very good at keeping the hood of his jacket up at all costs, and he knew the area. So well, in fact, that nothing had managed to slow him down.
Frank wasn’t sure why it was so important that he catch the guy. It likely had a lot to do with the fact that he felt like his family had somehow been violated. He wanted to protect them. Protect Rudy. They were his. All he had. And he was furious. He had his suspicions over who it was, and if he was right, a certain member of the Martin family had a lot of explaining to do. He hadn’t minded it when David took his picture without him knowing about it, but to think of a picture of Rudy which should have never been taken in the first place, wrecked his nerves.
The fact that Frank eventually had to stop, accepting defeat, wrecked his nerves, too. He’d come to a fork where two trails crossed paths, and there was no longer any sign of what he’d been chasing. No more glimpses, and as he strained to listen for more clues all he could hear was the wind, blowing like a whisper in his ear, that prickled the nape of his neck. He released the breath he’d been holding when he heard nothing of significance, and then couldn’t seem to catch it as his lungs worked to slow down. His head ached, his throat was dry, and his face felt hot against the cool air as he absorbed it, wishing he would have slowed down sooner. For long moments he rested his hands on his knees until he caught his breath, but as he focused on his surroundings again, he found that he was not relieved at all.
Frank didn’t know where he was. The shadows crossing over him were nearly suffocating, and he was disoriented as he realized that the brush surrounding him was so thick that nothing was visible, not even the lake. There was too much he couldn’t see, and if he’d been the hunter only moments ago, he now had the uneasy feeling of being watched. He spun around to the sound of nothingness, his pupils dilating as his blue eyes took in too many dark places. When the possibility that he hadn’t lost the stranger at all came to mind, Frank was no longer pleased by it. He was afraid of it.
He told himself that it was unwarranted, this fear. But it wouldn’t cease. His skin itched and prickled, and the sensation caused him to feel trapped inside of it. Frozen to the point that he was too afraid to look behind him, as if the action itself could cause some unseen force to strike, like a little boy afraid of the shadows on his bedroom wall at night.
When Frank was a child, he’d gone through a phase of nightmares. It wasn’t long after his first sleepovers, where a friend’s older brother had told horror stories that no six-year-old had any business hearing. For weeks afterwards, he’d wake up with a dry throat, his small body frozen under the covers as the moving shadows in his room threatened disaster until the fear took over entirely. He wet his bed, and he’d cried. Back then, it had been his father who would rescue him from the terror. He remembered gentle hands cleaning him up, big arms holding him, supplying enough comfort to take it all away. Reassuring whispers in his ear until he could fall asleep again. He’d never felt more at ease. But his father wasn’t here to chase these nightmares away. Likely never would be again. Despite Rudy’s hopeful delusions the man was gone, and at the moment, Frank was alone.
He took in a steadying breath and attempted to appear unbothered by the uncomfortable sensations flooding his senses for any watching eyes, or perhaps his own mental well-being. His hands shaking at his sides were only one sign of his failure as he looked straight ahead to a thick span of trees, his vision narrowing down to a to a tunnel as he directed his attention to a shadow moving within the space. Instinct told him to run, but still he moved closer, his feet feeling like dead weight as he urged them to take small steps.
And then he heard something. Breathing. It came in short, harsh breaths along with hard, fast-paced footsteps nearing him at a dead run. Only, it wasn’t coming from in front of Frank at all. Frank spun around and braced himself. His hands flew up in natural defense, and as a body nearly collided with his own from out of nowhere he gripped at its shoulders, holding the heavy force at bay as he prepared himself to strike back if necessary.
Frank stared into familiar hazel eyes and a flushed face. But still, he wasn’t satisfied until he took notice of his own clothes below the other boy’s neck and allowed himself a relieved breath.
“Jesus, Oliver,” Frank whispered in a hoarse voice. He let go of Oliver, but stood next to him so that they were shoulder to shoulder as he redirected his attention to the suspicious shadows. He wanted the contact. Any contact. Any comfort. At the moment, Oliver provided it.
“I don’t know where he went,” Frank said quietly. “Did you see him?”
Oliver shook his head, seeming uneasy. “We should go back, Frank. Your mom said to come back.”
Frank narrowed his eyes, shaking his head. “Some asshole took pictures of my sister. Oliver, you’ve gotta tell me. Was it David?”
Oliver lowered his head. “David gets in trouble, Frank. I don’t want him to get in trouble anymore.”
Frank frowned, and his guard faltered as he turned to face the other boy. “Look, if it’s David, you have to tell me, okay? What he did isn’t right, Oliver. He can’t... what he did was wrong. Very wrong. Do you get that? Oliver, please...”
Frank paused in mid-sentence as shadows moved around him. As he turned, all he could see was a flash of pale skin and a black jacket covering a tall figure that held a threat in his hand that promised an act of violence Frank could only begin to comprehend. The thick branch was swung with purpose, but not at Frank. It’s target was Oliver, he realized as they were rushed from the side.
“Look out!” Frank shouted.
Oliver’s eyes widened as he dodged to his right, gasping in shock when he didn’t move quickly enough and the harsh wood cracked against his upper arm, just below his shoulder. It was the beginning and the end of the attack, but it was enough. Oliver fell as his attacker dropped the branch to flee.
This time, Frank was close enough. He dived and tackled, latching onto dark clothing as he wrestled the perpetrator to the ground. He grabbed a thick shoulder, intent on rolling over the body beneath him, but took a sharp elbow to the face for his troubles.
Blood flooded Frank’s mouth as his top lip split against his teeth and the pain subdued him long enough for his captive to struggle his way to freedom, and then he was gone. Frank was left in a state no less than shock as he dabbed at his bloody lip with the back of his wrist, wondering if he should pursue another chase. It was Oliver’s presence that decided for him.
“Are you alright?” Frank demanded as he crawled towards his friend, who was now sitting on the ground, clutching at his injured arm with a red face and gritted teeth. “Oliver?” Frank lifted his hand, but stopped himself from placing it on Oliver’s shoulder, for fear of worsening the pain. Instead, he carefully pried Oliver’s hand away from the injury and rolled up the sleeve. The welt was visible already, swelling and bruising with every second that passed. Frank cursed. “Did you see him?”
Oliver shook his head, and winced when Frank touched his tender injury, even with gentle fingers. Frank stood, and held his hand out for Oliver to take.
“Come on,” Frank insisted. “Let’s get back.”
Oliver lifted his eyes to Frank’s face, where they suddenly widened. “You’re bleeding, Frank!” Oliver said, as if it were his only concern in the world.
“I’m okay,” Frank insisted. “Come on, Oliver. I wanna make sure my sister’s alright, and we need to get some ice on your arm. I don’t think it’s broken, but someone should look.”
“It’s not broken,” Oliver replied. “Just hurts real bad.”
Frank helped him to his feet, and while he was concerned over Oliver’s injury, he was happy to have him there. Oliver knew the way back, and with his guidance, they reached the house rather quickly where Jessica Seaberg was waiting at the front door with Rudy. She took one look at her son’s bloody face---which Frank insisted looked worse than it was--and went into a full-on motherly assault unit as she dragged him to the kitchen, forced him down at the table and forced a wet rag and bag of ice upon him.
“I can’t believe you!” she said angrily. “And look at you, Frank!”
Frank glanced towards Oliver as he sat nervously in a seat next to him, still holding his arm while his mother turned her back and continued her tirade. He tried to offer a reassuring smile to his guest, but it came out as a grimace when Frank realized that that particular expression hurt. But, Oliver seemed relieved when Frank handed over his ice pack, sliding it beneath the other boy’s sleeve.
“Do you have any idea how stupid that was?” Jessica demanded, rounding on her son.
Frank only sighed, and looked towards the kitchen entrance, where Rudy looked shaken, standing by the door. “You alright, Rudy?” he asked her. The question seemed to instantly calm his mother, who went to hug his sister.
“Of course we’re not alright,” Jessica said angrily, but when she faced Frank, she was calm again. “Did you see who it was?”
Frank frowned as he glanced at Oliver for a moment, but then shook his head. “No.”
Jessica looked between the boys at her kitchen table as Frank used the washcloth to clean the blood from his mouth, but her eyes ultimately settled on Oliver as she noticed the ice had switched hands. “What happened?” she asked, going to the boy that was not her son.
“We cornered him and he attacked us,” Frank said simply.
Jessica lifted a worried looking Oliver’s sleeve, and gasped at the knot she found there. “Oh, Oliver... you hold that there,” she ordered, moving to the freezer for more ice. “And no one saw him?”
“I couldn’t say who he was,” Frank replied. “Not for sure.”
Jessica frowned as she took a long moment to look around the kitchen at her children, and one that wasn’t hers. “I want everyone in the car,” she decided.
“What?” Frank demanded. “What for?”
“We’re going to file a police report,” Jessica stated. “And we’re going to see about getting some better locks... Oliver, I’m going to have to take you home first...”
“What? No,” Frank stated. “Mom...”
“Frank, he can’t come with us. His parents wouldn’t like it. And we are going.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Frank stated, and when he saw a warning look grow over his mom’s face, he changed his tone. “Look, you take Rudy and go... someone should stay here, anyway.”
“Frank, I don’t want...”
“Mom, please,” Frank said, his words becoming muffled as he held the rag closer to his sore lip. “I’ll lock the doors. And the windows... just... I want to stay here.”
“I wanna stay with Frank,” Oliver chimed in.
Jessica turned her attention to Oliver. She was beginning to look exasperated, and Frank knew they were pushing it, but still jumped in before she could say anything. “Take Rudy and go report this to someone, alright? I don’t want to leave the house, in case the guy comes back.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Jessica stated.
“Mom, I don’t want to go, either,” Rudy suddenly said, and that was what did it for Jessica, and unexpectedly, gave Frank what he wanted.
“No--Rudy, you are going with me,” Ms. Seaberg stated. “Get in the car. Now. Let’s go. Frank, you don’t leave the house, keep the doors locked. Unless the Martins come over to pick up Oliver. You’ll have to tell them what happened.”
“I can’t do that!” Frank objected. Although, it was unclear which part he didn’t like.
“You have to,” Jessica stated. “And I’m stopping at Mr. Dron’s on the way out to ask him to check on you. Open the door for him.”
“But...” Frank started.
“I shouldn’t be gone any longer than an hour or so... Frank...”
She was giving him her worried look, and Frank could understand why. He felt a little shaken himself. It hadn’t been as bad since he’d made it home, and he was still numb with adrenaline, but he was disturbed over the afternoons events. But he didn’t want to leave the house. Someone had been sneaking around their windows. If he left, Frank wasn’t sure how safe he’d feel when he came back.
“We’ll be fine, Mom,” he finally said. “I’ll let Mr. Dron in.”
Jessica stared at him for a long moment, and then let out a breath. “Keep ice on your face,” she ordered, and then looked at Oliver. “Oliver, does your arm hurt really bad?”
“It’s not broken, Mom,” Frank answered for him. “We’ll be fine.”
Frank wished that he felt fine, too. But, even after he’d locked the door behind his mom and his sister, he had trouble sitting still. He’d washed off his face and checked the damage. The split lip wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t that bad, either. At least, not physically. It was unclear if it was his ego doing the thinking for him, but Frank felt like he’d just lost something more than a fight. He wished that he knew what it was.
He didn’t feel safe. Since he’d moved, he’d always thought of his family’s new home as a little...uncomfortable. But, this was the first time he didn’t feel safe in it. He went through the trouble of making sure every single window was locked, drawing the curtains for good measure. Oliver followed silently, holding ice to his arm. In the kitchen, Frank swallowed down three full glasses of water. Oliver sipped one. And in the living room, Frank paced, repeatedly checking the front window for visitors, and Oliver waited patiently on the sofa.
Frank was happy Oliver was there. It would be worse, he thought, if he’d been completely alone. He suddenly stopped, allowed his breathing to slow, and looked over his friend. Oliver’s ice had melted, and he was regarding the bag as if it had betrayed him. Frank found himself smiling at that, and feeling guilty. He opened his mouth to ask Oliver if he was alright, but suddenly Oliver’s eyes lifted to meet his.
“You didn’t tell your mom it was David,” he said, as if he’d sensed that Frank was finally calm enough to talk.
Frank frowned. “Was it him?”
Oliver lowered his head, his brow knitted, and after a long moment of consideration, Frank decided that he simply didn’t know. He sighed, and joined the other boy on the sofa where he rested his head back against the thick cushions and closed his eyes. He could hear the natural creaks in the house, and somewhere in the distance, the purring of a cat and the hum of the dishwasher. They didn’t strike him as comforting sounds. “Some freak has a picture of my sister,” he said quietly. It was wondering over the content of that picture that had him worried, but he was afraid to even think about it, let alone say it out loud. It was all too frustrating. There was too much going on. He’d been worried about Oliver. Now, he was worried about his own family. He didn’t get this place. He didn’t know if he wanted to. “I hate it here.”
Frank felt the cushions beneath him shift, and didn’t react when he felt his companion’s head rest slowly and gently on his shoulder, but when he felt Oliver’s hand climb over his own, Frank opened his eyes and watched the other boy’s fingers play over his palm. “Don’t say that, Frank,” Oliver insisted. “You’re my only friend.”
Frank looked down at the top of Oliver’s head at the messy dark hair and inhaled the scent of fresh lemons. He swallowed tightly, and without thought, found himself snuggling in closer to the warm body at his side as his hand closed over Oliver’s. “Right now I think you’re mine, too,” he admitted, suddenly resenting everyone that used to be in his life. He blamed his father for the situation that he found himself in with his mother and his sister. It was his fault that they had to move away from all their friends. It was his fault that they had to live in a run-down dump that smelled like cat urine. And it was his fault that the dump they had to live in didn’t feel safe. Because it certainly wasn’t Frank’s fault that he felt so out of sorts. He’d been uprooted, and now more than ever, he was feeling it. Between his mom working and having to help out around the house, making new friends, building a new life--it had all become a difficult task. A lonely task, since he hadn’t even heard back from any of the friends he’d written to, another thing that Frank resented. At the moment, besides his mom and his sister, Frank truly felt that Oliver was his only friend, and that small detail did a lot of explaining as to why Frank was feeling protective of that friendship... and of Oliver.
Oliver suddenly lifted his head, turning so that he and Frank were face to face, with no apparent regard for personal space. Frank didn’t seem to notice, but when Oliver smiled at what he’d said, taking it as a compliment, he wasn’t able to return it this time. Frank’s eyes fell to Oliver’s arm, to the place where the other boy was now holding a bag of water.
“Does it hurt really bad?” Frank asked.
“It just hurts.”
Frank met Oliver’s eyes, frowning. “Why’d you follow me?”
Oliver looked at Frank as if he didn’t understand why that particular question was being asked, not as if he didn’t understand the question. Frank sighed.
“I’m sorry you got hurt, Oliver.”
“I’m sorry you got hurt, too, Frank,” Oliver replied in all sincerity as he put down the bag and lifted his hand, bringing his fingers close to Frank’s face.
Instinctively, Frank flinched at the sudden gesture, but somehow managed to keep his own hands from interfering as Oliver’s fingers hovered over his sore mouth for a moment, and then ultimately came to rest alongside it at his cheek.
Frank self-consciously wanted to look away, the close proximity beginning to affect him, but instead, his eyes remained on Oliver’s, a task easily achieved only because Oliver wasn’t meeting Frank’s eyes directly, but looking at his injured lip instead. His gentle fingers and concerned expression seemed sweet to Frank, and as ridiculous as it seemed to Frank, he was touched by the indiscreet attention. Oliver moved his thumb, gingerly touching Frank’s top lip near the cut before pulling his hand away. Frank could hear his own breathing, his vision blurring as he continued to watch Oliver at close proximity; and when his tongue moved from his mouth to touch his injury he could taste his own blood and salty flavor left from Oliver’s fingers. When he suddenly realized that Oliver’s eyes were once again meeting his, Frank pulled his head back enough to bring the hazel rings into focus. It was just in time to take in a surprised breath as Oliver leaned forward, and as the other boy’s lips came to rest at the corner of Frank’s mouth he counted off the three delicate seconds that the kiss lasted.
When Frank looked at Oliver again, he was sitting back on the sofa, still watching Frank in the calm manner that Oliver seemed capable of pulling off no matter what the circumstances, causing Frank to believe that he was the only one experiencing any amount of awkwardness. He told himself that he would have let the moment pass, accept the gesture of comfort for what it was. Innocent. Sweet like Oliver. And he would have. But then the corner of Oliver’s mouth quirked up in a shy smile as he regarded Frank sidelong, and suddenly Frank wondered if Oliver was innocent at all. Innocent, perhaps. But something in the dark-haired boy’s expression gave him away, told Frank that he’d known exactly what he was doing. There was something there. There had to have been, or Frank never would have lifted his hand to brush a stand of soft hair behind Oliver’s hair, or slide his hand to the back of Oliver’s head to pull him forward.
Frank’s approach wasn’t nearly as gentle as Oliver’s, and he paid for it when a sting rose from his injured lip, but his aim was more intimate as his mouth collided with Oliver’s. He heard the other boy’s breath hitch, and then felt Oliver’s lips parting beneath his, feeling soft and careful. Their tongues lightly touched, Frank acting first, but then Oliver startled him as he deepened the kiss in a way that suggested that the experience wasn’t at all new to him. It was Frank who pulled back first.
Frank could feel the color rising in his face, but it had nothing to do with embarrassment. Staring at Oliver, he felt depleted. Perhaps it was the earlier adrenaline leaving him, and the excitement of the day, but that kiss had unexplainably drained him and he discouraged himself from wanting to do it again. Not only because he was afraid that to continue would exhaust himself, and perhaps Oliver, too, completely.
Frank rubbed at his mouth, and gently touched the wound there as he glanced at Oliver. “I’m sorry, Oliver,” he said, feeling that an apology was necessary, even though he didn’t sound sorry. Maybe he wasn’t. Caught in the moment, Frank had felt closer to Oliver, and as much as he wanted to convince himself that there had been an underlying meaning in Oliver’s kiss, he still saw it as a gesture of comfort that he’d promptly taken advantage of, and Oliver’s naivete on other matters had Frank questioning whether or not Oliver had kissed him because he wanted to, or because he was trying to do what Frank wanted.
Oliver, on the other hand, changed Frank’s mind again when he appeared to be irritated over the interruption. “Why, Frank?”
Frank shrugged. “Don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.”
Oliver frowned. “Well can I do it, then?”
Frank outright laughed, while Oliver continued to study him with a faint, but detectable amount of annoyance until Frank leaned forward again. Oliver’s frown faded, and for the moment, so did any doubts Frank might have had.
It sounded like someone was scratching on the ceiling. Scraping over old wooden boards. The creak of a door opening, and the thud of something falling. Perhaps a box, spilling small objects which rolled across the attic floor.
Frank was standing with his back firmly against the living room wall, right where he could see the entrance to the kitchen, the dark hall leading to the bedrooms, and the stairs leading upwards. His eyes darted from place to place, each moving shadow causing another knot in his throat, but nothing was going to get by him.
Cats, he told himself, it’s just the cats. In fact, he believed himself to be correct in that regard. But it still did nothing to rest his mind. Frank was tired of being on edge. He was tired of every sound making him jump, and the stiff sensation in his neck and back, caused by uncontrollable anxiety. An hour ago he’d been fine. Stretched out on the sofa with Oliver, watching a funny movie to calm both of their nerves, and a few shared kisses had made it easier for Frank not to think about the strange occurrences he didn’t understand. The physical intimacy with Oliver had been a comfort, and a challenge, when Frank realized that if their innocent affection escalated, he’d likely cross an invisible line he’d set for himself as far as Oliver was concerned. And he didn’t think Oliver would have minded, which only made the dilemma worse. But, he still felt like hiding Oliver away when Mr. Martin had pulled up alongside the house in his yellow truck just after seven o’clock.
Oliver seemed happy to see his dad, though. And, his dad treated Oliver in the same respect, confusing Frank. His gut still told him that something was wrong, but whatever it was, he couldn’t seem to see it, even if Mr. Martin seemed more than a little standoffish towards Frank when he discovered that Jessica had left them alone at the house. Frank had done nothing to smooth over the situation. He didn’t like Mr. Martin as it was, and despite his mother’s orders, he feared the truth would cause the Martins to reconsider their decision to allow Frank to see Oliver. So, he only mentioned that she had to take his sister to town, and planned to be back shortly. Oliver had seemed to understand what Frank was doing, and even added that he’d had a fun time and thanked his dad for letting him stay. He’d smiled at Frank through the truck window as they drove away, and Frank was sorry to see him go. Everything seemed to have gone downhill since. Being alone was just plain creepy in that house, and Oliver’s absence had managed to alert Frank to the fact that his mom and sister had been gone for much longer than an hour. When he’d become even more aware of the sounds in the house and the darkening sky outside, he’d grown so uncomfortable that it felt nearly impossible to sit still for anything, and he even wished that Mr. Dron would stop by to check on him.
Frank was so tense that when the sound of a key unlocking the front door clicked in his ears before it opened, allowing in a burst of humid air, he jumped even as he saw his mother standing there with Rudy just behind her.
“What good is a sheriff’s office with no officers in it?” Jessica demanded irritably, seeming unaware of Frank’s strong sigh of relief.
“You said an hour,” he said accusingly as he moved to meet them at the door.
Jessica frowned. “I’m sorry, but I was sent all over town looking for some man who supposedly would be able to help me,” she explained as she ushered Rudy into the house and closed the door. “I finally found his wife, who said he’s out catching their dinner--can you believe that? Catching their dinner? Anyway, she told me that she’d send him to us when he came home. I have no idea when that will be, and in the meantime, it looks like we’re on our own.”
“My stomach hurts,” Rudy said from behind her mother.
“Go pull out something for dinner, Rudy,” Jessica replied, “and we’ll get started.” She looked at Frank seriously. “Was everything okay here? Where’s Oliver?”
“His dad picked him up.”
“How did that go?” Jessica asked as Frank followed her towards the kitchen.
“Fine, I guess.”
“Meaning you didn’t mention what happened today? Frank, Oliver got hurt. His parents have a right to know...”
“So they can change their minds about letting him out?” Frank cut her off. “Mom, you know how they treat him’s messed up, and if you tell...”
“I don’t know that, Frank,” Jessica stated. “The Martins have their reasons for wanting to keep a close eye on Oliver, and I’m sorry, but given their situation. I can’t blame them for it.”
“Their situation with Oliver?”
Jessica stopped walking and turned to Frank with an expression that begged him to remain calm. She’d just realized that they’d never managed to finish their earlier conversation about Oliver. “Frank, I honestly believe that the Martins are doing the best they can. Listen... I know Oliver seems like a nice boy, and he is, but I think he has a few problems that might be a little over your head.”
“Like what?” Frank demanded, naturally taking offense.
Jessica sighed. “As the Martins explained it... there are times when Oliver has a few lapses. Sometimes he just... doesn’t understand why he’s doing something, or he’ll forget why he’s doing it in the first place. He...”
“He forgets,” Frank finished for her. “Sometimes he wakes up and doesn’t remember. He told me, Mom--and it sounds fishy.”
“It’s not fishy, Frank. That boy went through a lot when he was younger. Before his surgery, Mrs. Martin said that he couldn’t even feed himself. He’s come a long way, and it probably has a lot to do with his parents.”
Frank frowned. His mom was obviously going to be stubborn about this. “That still doesn’t explain the bruises... I know they’re hard to see, but they were on his face this morning. He looked like hell. He can’t even remember what happened to him, but Mom, there is definitely something going on over there that...”
“Maybe you’re right,” Jessica admitted. “But have you considered that his parents have nothing to do with it at all?”
“What do you mean?”
“They talked to me a little bit about David, too,” Jessica replied, wiping her wrist tiredly over her forehead. “I’ll admit I did think it was unreasonable for them to keep him as tightly leashed as they do Oliver after what you told me, but according to the Martins, David wants to stay home with his brother. Mrs. Martin thinks they’re very close, but...”
“But what?” Frank asked.
“Well... it seems to me that they might be focusing on taking care of the boys so much that they can’t really see that something might be wrong. It seems David has a temper. You know, that’s why they didn’t want you coming around, Frank. They were afraid David might try to cause trouble for you and I guess I can’t help but wonder if that’s because David’s jealous of Oliver more than David and Oliver being close to one another.”
“Jealous?” Frank repeated.
“Think about it for a second, Frank. Oliver’s parents are completely focused on him and what he needs. They’re bending over backwards trying to support his needs and keep him educated, and while I’m sure they care about David... he probably doesn’t get as much attention as his brother, so he acts out. The Martins are probably so overwhelmed already that their way to deal with David is to ground him. They try to control him rather than try to help him, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out David is taking some of his frustration and anger out on Oliver.”
“You think David hurt him?” Frank asked, more thoughtfully than skeptically.
Jessica shrugged. “It wouldn’t be unheard of, one sibling picking on another. But, the Martins probably don’t see it because Oliver looks up to David. I suppose the only one who would know the answer to that is Oliver. Maybe you should try talking to him. The Martins think he likes you.”
“They do?” Frank asked, surprised.
“That’s why they’ve decided to let him keep coming over here... and, I convinced them that you’re worth spending time with.” She suddenly narrowed her eyes, albeit playfully. “Don’t you dare make me eat my words, young man. Come on. Let’s get something to eat...” Jessica suddenly lowered her voice and spoke to her son seriously. “And Frank, let’s talk about happy things, okay? Your sister’s pretty shaken up about what happened today.”
Frank sighed, nodding in agreement. Happy topics sounded good to him, and he could hardly blame his sister for being upset. He only hoped that they’d find out who’d been snooping around their house, and none of them would have to be upset for much longer.
Howard Crook wasn’t happy about having to leave the comfort of his bed an hour earlier than usual before heading to his job at the taxidermist’s. At sixty-two, he considered himself a reasonable old man entitled to his leisure time, even if it cut into things like regular bathing and brushing his teeth, which he hadn’t done in a while he thought as he picked a piece of last night’s supper out of his two front teeth--or what was left of them--and then promptly popped it right back into his mouth. His wife, Brenda, was a good cook, and he had the gut to prove it. But Brenda could also be a pushy little banshee, like she was that morning when she threatened to withhold breakfast if he didn’t get on up to the lake to check out a complaint from the new teacher in town.
So, not being one to give up a meal so easily, Howard had strapped on his boots, clipped the sheriff’s badge he shared with two other men in town to his shirt front, and headed to the other side of the lake. He never really liked it there, up in the hills. His whole life he’d lived in this town, and the residents in the hills had always seemed separate. It didn’t really matter that their area code was all the same. Most of them were older residents who’d been there for years. Hardly any of them showed up for Sunday service, and they stared out at the boats that drifted into their territory like invading enemies. Someone probably should have told these Seaberg people they would have been better off in town, Crook mused. Least of all, they shouldn’t have moved into Odetta Grover’s old place. He was surprised that the town hadn’t had the house condemned after the woman’s death.
That was the last time Howard had been in the area, a year ago when they’d fished Odetta’s waterlogged corpse out of the lake. He’d been the volunteer deputy on call that morning, and had been the first to arrive. He wasn’t sure how the word got out on the accident, but before he was able to clean up the scene where the boat and Odetta’s body had apparently washed ashore, the entire town had shown up to see what all the excitement was about. He hadn’t seen so much traffic in the area... well, ever. There’d been people everywhere, all curious about one cranky old woman who’d been crazy enough to take her boat out in the storm. Odetta had been a real reclusive woman. She was someone people liked to tell crazy stories about, and during all the craziness of that day, people had invaded her home, taking souvenirs. A dish. A bowl. Little knickknacks that looked as wicked as the old house did, and a few people even took cats. Odetta hadn’t had any relatives that anyone knew of, so the town had taken ownership of the house until recently, when they’d sold it to Crook’s most recent assignment.
He hoped that this Seaberg woman wasn’t about to waste his time. Many of the few complaints dealt with by Crook and the other volunteers involved silly things, like Mrs. Sander’s missing gloves. The last time he’d shown up to help the senile old bat find them, she’d been wearing both. His wife had mentioned that the Seaberg woman had sounded upset, but Howard still had a hard time imagining what it could be about, other than her choice in housing. Apart from the occasional prankster, the town wasn’t prone to a lot of crime, which is why Crook once again felt disgruntled that he was making this trip in the first place. His tune changed, however, as he pulled up to the Seaberg house and caught sight of a young-looking woman with curly brown hair down by the water with bare feet and cutoff shorts. She was splashing in the lake, just along the shoreline with her redheaded daughter, while an adolescent male who Crook thought could use a haircut sat on an old tire nearby watching. Mrs. Seaberg was a pretty little thing, Howard thought as he grinned to himself. Back in her day, his Brenda had been quite the catch herself, but somewhere over the past ten years the woman had stopped shaving her legs and grown something of a mustache. Crook never complained, but he also never turned down the opportunity to talk to a pretty lady.
Turning the key and shutting down the engine, Crook wet his fingers with his tongue and straightened his bushy eyebrows in the rearview mirror. When he got out of the car and waved to the Seabergs, his smile was just about as greasy as the balding patches of gray hair on his head, and the family regarded him warily as the boy went to stand near his mother and sister in such a territorial manner that Crook nearly laughed. Instead, he pointed to his badge and walked towards them.
“Someone call for a sheriff?” he asked.
Mrs. Martin noticeably relaxed, and came to introduce herself and her two children. Crook, now less eager to leave, did his best to be polite as he asked the family how they liked the area, and did the neighborly thing by inviting them to church. The little girl was so timid she hid behind her brother the whole time, and the brother was more than a little standoffish as he continued to watch Crook’s every move, but it didn’t matter, since he was more interested in dealing with their mother. But as Jessica Seaberg explained the problem, Crook was a little confused over the whole thing.
“You say he took a picture?” Crook asked when Jessica had finished.
“Yes,” she replied. “Through my daughter’s bedroom window. Would you like to write any of this down, Mr. Crook.”
“No need, no need,” Crook said animatedly and then tapped at his temple. “I keep it all in here, sweetheart, all in here.” He laughed, but the family didn’t join him in it so he cleared his throat and looked at the redheaded little girl. “He didn’t take a picture of anything indecent, did he?”
Rudy turned as red as her hair, and Frank moved protectively in front of her, appalled by the man’s blackening teeth and total lack of finesse while handling the situation.
“She’d been changing,” Jessica intervened. “ She thinks the picture was taken while she was dressed, but this boy was still outside of her bedroom window.”
“I see, I see,” Howard said, although Frank looked skeptical over that. “And you say your boy and his friend chased him off?”
“They fought,” Jessica said, and Howard looked at the young man’s split lip and grinned.
“He gotcha a good one, didn’t he?” Crook remarked.
“He took us by surprise,” Frank said tersely. “He hit Oliver, too.”
“With a big stick,” Jessica added, wanting the sheriff to have all the details, despite the fact that his competence concerned her. “If you’d like to talk to him, too, he’s...”
“No, that’ll be alright,” Crook said as he waved her concern away with his plump hand. He coughed, tasting last night’s cigar, and wiped some of the sweat from his brow as he looked over the family, and then at Jessica, his eyes moving straight up her body from her legs to her face. She was frowning at him. “I’ll do my best to ask around and see if anyone knows anything,” Howard offered. “But I gotta tell you, Miss, this is probably nothing. You know how kids are, anything to entertain themselves through the summer.”
Jessica’s frown deepened. “Mr. Crook...”
“There’s even a picture-taking club back in town. A bunch of kids who get together every week and... take pictures.”
“You think it might have been someone from a photography club?” Jessica asked.
“Could be. Maybe they came up here to find something more interesting, and one of them thought it would be funny. Like I said, I’ll ask around. In the meantime, you and the kids try not to worry. I’ll get in touch if I find anything.”
“That’s it?” Frank demanded.
“Sorry, son. It’s all I can do for right now. Unless you saw who it was?” Howard watched the boy closely for a moment, but only because he looked away, as if to hide something; but then their eyes met again and Frank shook his head.
“Well then,” Crook said as he reached to shake Mrs. Seaberg’s hand again. “If you think of anything else, you be sure to let me know about it.”
“We will,” Jessica said. She sounded disappointed, but it was unclear whether or not Howard Crook noticed it as his big body slowly moved back to his vehicle and he drove away while the family watched.
The truth was, he didn’t really care about the way Jessica Seaberg seemed to be overreacting over the situation. But, she was a woman, so he really expected nothing less. But as far as Crook was concerned, some kid had gotten curious, and a few boys had exchanged blows. Not really a big deal. Still, nearly half a mile down the road, the dark figure of a man in a hooded jacket filled Howard Crook’s rearview mirror, and he hit the brakes before he looked again to make sure it wasn’t a shadow. Seeing that the figure hadn’t moved, he struggled in his seat to look out the back window. He saw a shadow move, and then whoever it was was gone.
Howard shook his head and hit the gas. He hated it up here in the hills. He wanted to get back to town. He needed to get to his real job, anyway, and didn’t have time for the new teacher’s silly complaints. Besides, the object in the figure’s hands could have been anything besides a camera.
Oliver Martin sat up in his bed, yawning and stretching before he rubbed at his eyes, adjusting to the morning light coming through his bedroom window. He could smell cinnamon oatmeal and pancakes, and hear his parents talking about their plans for the day somewhere on the other side of the door.
He adjusted his boxer shorts as he climbed out of bed, smiling to himself as he moved to look out the window. It was going to be a good day, he just knew it. Any day he saw Frank would be a good day as far as he was concerned. Not even the large, painful bruise on his arm was enough to dampen his spirits. It was a small price to pay for the afternoon he’d had yesterday. Being with Frank was wonderful. Everything about Frank was wonderful.
Oliver stared at his reflection in the window glass, noticing that it seemed to be coming closer and closer to him until it stopped and he realized that it wasn’t smiling back. Sighing, he opened the window and spoke through it at his twin.
“What’re you doing out there, David?”
“You’re waking up kinda late, Oliver,” David replied. “I thought you wanted to go see Frank today.”
“I will after breakfast,” Oliver said, and then fell silent for a moment as he thought over his next words. “You can’t take pictures of Frank’s family anymore, David. He doesn’t like it.”
“I’ll take pictures of whatever I want,” David said decidedly.
Oliver frowned. “You’re gonna make him mad, David.”
“Frank’s my friend.”
“No he’s not, Oliver. He’s just some guy who feels sorry for you. I’m your only friend. Me and you--we only have each other. Don’t you remember that, Oliver?”
“Frank’s different. He likes me, David! And you told me he was different. Remember, David?”
“I said you should say hi to him, not fall for him. He’s using you.”
“That’s not true!” Oliver snapped in a rare outburst of anger towards his brother. “He likes me. He told me so. He likes me more than you, even.”
David laughed bitterly. “Doesn’t everybody? He’s not really your friend, Oliver. We don’t have friends.”
Frank bit into a fresh ham sandwich as he stood on his front porch and looked across the lake towards the red roof. Oliver had said he’d come over again today, but so far he hadn’t shown up, and Frank was getting antsy. For all he knew, Oliver could have told his parents what had happened yesterday, and they’d changed their minds about letting him come over. Then again, after yesterday Frank needed to give Oliver more credit than that, he decided. And he did. It was simply easier to concern himself with Oliver’s whereabouts than to think about his other problems. Like David.
It had been on the tip of Frank’s tongue that morning to tell Mr. Crook who he suspected of being responsible for yesterday’s unexpected events. He probably would have, too, if it wasn’t for the fact that he couldn’t actually prove that it had been David; and then there was the fact that he completely doubted Crook’s dependability, anyway. Even Frank’s mom pointed out that the man probably wasn’t fit to take on the responsibility of a dog, let alone the duties of an officer of the law. Frank had to agree with her. Although, Crook’s mention of the photography club had caught Frank’s attention, and for a good part of the morning he’d been wondering if he could seek out more information about the group in town.
Frank glanced back at his sister, flashing her a welcoming smile. He’d been trying to be extra nice to her since yesterday afternoon.
“Mom wants to know if you’re ready for lunch.”
“Already taken care of,” Frank replied as he held up the remainder of his sandwich before shoving it greedily into his mouth.
“Oh,” Rudy replied, but didn’t go back into the house. Instead, she stared out at the lake. Frank frowned. He couldn’t help being worried about her. She’d been afraid to sleep in her own room the night before, and hadn’t at all been comforted by the sheriff’s visit. “There’s a cat under my bed,” she said. “He hissed at me when I tried to get him out.”
“Be careful,” Frank warned. “Some of them are kind of wild.”
“Will you get it out for me?”
“Sure,” Frank agreed.
Rudy sighed as she moved to stand next to him. “I’m bored, Frank.”
He smiled at that. “You’re the one who didn’t want to go back to camp today.”
“I hate it there. It’s stupid. Is Oliver coming over today?”
“Maybe. I think so.”
“Can I go with you and Oliver somewhere?” Rudy asked.
Frank looked at her, stomping down the urge to say no. if Oliver came over, there was a lot that Frank wanted to say to him, and none of it was meant for his little sister’s ears.
“We’ll see,” he told her, just as his mom came outside to interrupt them.
“We have a phone, we have a phone,” she said in a sing-song voice. She was also hopping around like an over-caffeinated cheerleader, which had Frank rolling his eyes. She just grinned and ruffled his hair in response as she repeated herself one more time. “We have a phone. So, who should we call first? Grandpa? Uncle Chris? One of your friends, one of mine? Who wants to go first?”
“Daddy!” Rudy cut in as she rushed back into the house. Jessica sobered while Frank only scowled after his sister.
There were several moments of awkward silence before Jessica tapped her son’s arm and gave him an encouraging smile. “Do you want to go in and talk to him, Frank? It’s been a while. I’m sure he’d like to hear from you.”
Frank gave his mom a look that clearly stated his opinion on the matter, although he held back from expressing it out loud. “I’m gonna go take a walk,” he announced.
Jessica frowned, looking pointedly at the scab blemishing her son’s top lip. “Promise you’ll stay close.”
Frank rolled his eyes and made a show being completely unconcerned with his mom’s worrying as he kissed her cheek and gave her a short nod. “I won’t be gone that long,” he promised, but then stopped halfway down the stairs to look back. “Hey, Mom? Are you going back into town today?”
“I’m not sure. Why? Is there something you need?”
Frank shrugged. “Not really. Just let me know if you do, okay? I think I’ll wanna go with.”
“Sure, honey,” she agreed.
Frank turned to leave once more, but paused again for a different reason as he faced the lake. Not far off a familiar little motor boat was headed for their side of the water with one dark-haired passenger.
“It looks like you’ll have company on your walk,” Jessica commented.
“I’ll see you later, Mom,” Frank said, and instead of heading off into the woods on his own, he started walking towards the low-lying bridge that Oliver liked to dock at. By the time he reached it, Oliver, with his messy hair and big crooked smile, was climbing out with a lightweight backpack strapped to his back as he waved to Frank.
“Hi, Frank! My mom said I could come over by myself today, but I have to come home at four o’clock. I brought your clothes back. Do you want them now?”
“That’s okay,” Frank replied. “You can give them to me later. Wanna go for a walk?”
“You don’t want to go to your house?” Oliver asked, as if he were actually confused by that.
“Not really,” Frank admitted. “We got our phone hooked up so Rudy’s calling my dad. I don’t really wanna be around for it.”
“Oh. Okay where are we gonna go walking to?”
“I thought I’d ask you that,” Frank replied. “You’re better at not getting lost than I am.”
Oliver smiled. “Okay, Frank.”
They walked up the road, past the trails that Frank had already bothered to explore, and for about twenty minutes of that Frank felt guilty for not being the best of company. He’d used most of the time to vent about his father, something he normally wouldn’t have done, but he couldn’t quite seem to help it. Oliver was a good listener, and never gave any indication that he thought anything Frank had to say was boring, nor did he jump in and give Frank false reassurances or the well-intended but pushy advice that someone else might have. He simply listened. He also listened when Frank told him about Howard Crook and what the man had said, but instead of adding his thoughts to the situation as Frank had hoped he would, Oliver chose to remain silent.
“He said he’ll call if anything comes up, but I doubt it,” Frank explained. “I think if I want to figure out who was outside of Rudy’s window I’m gonna have to figure out who it was.” He paused, and studied Oliver out of the corner of his eye for a long moment. “I mean, I don’t know many people with a camera, except David. Do you think... do you have any idea who it might have been, Oliver? I didn’t see anything, but I thought maybe if you did...”
“I didn’t see anything, Frank,” Oliver said at the same time he reached over and took hold of Frank’s hand. Frank glanced down at the gesture, a reminder of the physical boundaries they’d crossed the day before. It took him a few more silent steps to realize that he was returning Oliver’s grip. He frowned at himself, more than towards the situation.
“Whoever it was could come back,” Frank said, realizing that he was sharing a genuine fear with Oliver.
“Maybe they won’t, Frank,” Oliver replied after some consideration. Frank stopped walking to face him, feeling irritated that Oliver appeared convinced.
“How would you know?” Frank demanded, sounding harsher than he’d intended. He couldn’t help it. He wanted answers, and it only aggravated him that everyone had something to hide, maybe even Oliver.
Oliver’s brow knitted and he frowned at Frank. “I just don’t want you to be upset, Frank. I said that to make you feel better.”
Frank stared at his friend for a long moment, and then choked back a laugh. To make him feel better. People told him things that were meant to make him feel better all the time. Like, his mom saying that everything was going to work itself out, or Rudy telling him that he didn’t look too bad on a hair day from hell. But, no one but Oliver, Frank imagined, would have pointed it out to him.
“Sorry, Oliver. I’m just stressed right now.”
“About your dad, Frank?”
“Among other things. Look, Oliver... I know you don’t want David to get in trouble, okay? But if you know it was him, then just tell me. I swear I’ll just want to talk to him. Maybe if I know why he did it... and then attacked us--you remember he attacked us, don’t you? If I just knew...” Frank stopped talking to take in a startled breath when he suddenly found Oliver’s mouth on his own, and with a gentle hand to the other boy’s chest, he pushed him away. “Oliver, stop, I’m trying...”
Oliver suddenly released Frank’s hand, looking offended enough to get Frank’s attention as he crossed his arms and looked at his feet. “Why not, Frank?” he demanded.
Because I’m trying to have a normal conversation, Frank thought. But, instead of saying that out loud, he considered the question and how he wanted to address it. It wasn’t like Oliver was asking him why he didn’t want to be interrupted. “Okay...” Frank said slowly, allowing himself to catch up with the situation. “Yesterday...”
“It was okay to kiss you yesterday,” Oliver cut in.
“Yeah, well maybe we shouldn’t have done that,” Frank replied. He reached out to place a comforting hand on Oliver’s shoulder, but Oliver only shrugged him off. “Oliver...”
“You said you liked me, Frank.”
“I know I did... and I still do, but I was thinking about it, and maybe I shouldn’t have... maybe we...”
“David said you were just using me,” Oliver said bitterly, surprising Frank as the other boy met his eyes again.
“You don’t really like me, do you? You were just using me, Frank.”
Frank took a physical step back when faced with the accusing look on Oliver’s face and he shook his head, dumbfounded. “No, that’s not it. That’s the thing, Oliver, I don’t want to use you. That’s why....” Frank released a something akin to a growl that sounded rather grumpy, and stopped himself from saying what he might regret later when Oliver appeared confused. Frank didn’t think Oliver would like being told what had really been on his mind.
It wasn’t that Frank didn’t like kissing Oliver. In fact, it seemed to him that he’d liked it too much. He liked a lot about Oliver a little too much, he was beginning to realize. He liked the smell of lemons, the soft messy hair, the often-laughing hazel eyes and the big, crooked grin that seemed more charming every time he saw it. Physically, he saw Oliver for what he was. An appealing young man who Frank could see himself doing a lot of things with. The problem was the fact that when Frank talked to Oliver, he often felt as if he was speaking to a boy much younger than himself. Not a stupid boy, but one who might not completely understand what those kisses meant. Of course, there was no nice way to say any of this to Oliver. Frank was definitely smart enough to realize he was walking on thin ice over the subject, and was forced to do the best he could, hoping that Oliver would understand.
“I do like you, Oliver... and I wouldn’t use you, okay? I just thought that maybe we shouldn’t do that anymore because I don’t want... I don’t want to take advantage of you, because I care about you. Make sense?”
Frank ran both hands through his hair, wishing that he could rewind the entire conversation and start over while Oliver studied him searchingly.
“You can’t take advantage of me,” Oliver finally said, and when Frank looked at him questioningly, he smiled. “And if you take advantage of me when you kiss me, then I like it.” Oliver reached for Frank’s hand, taking him off guard again when he suddenly sat down, seeming unconcerned with anything that might be on the ground beneath him before he looked up at Frank expectantly. “I like you a lot, Frank. I don’t want David to be right.”
Frank forced himself to sit on the ground because Oliver was still gripping his hand, and became annoyed when the moisture from the recent rain soaked through the back of his jeans, but tolerated it. “He’s not right, Oliver,” he insisted. “You are my friend,” he added sincerely, only to find that Oliver was no longer paying attention to him. “Oliver?” Frank paused when he realized that Oliver was removing the backpack from his back and opening it in his lap. He glanced inside at the contents, and then at Frank.
“David says he’s my only friend,” Oliver said in nearly a whisper, as if he didn’t want to be overheard, despite the seclusion. “It’s because we’re the same, Frank. He says we don’t have friends. Were not supposed to... but you’re here now, and I want things to be different. I don’t want David to get in trouble anymore. Here. Here, Frank. Don’t be mad at him anymore.”
Frank watched, curious and somewhat nerve-racked as Oliver removed a plastic bag from his backpack containing a thin stack of what were obviously photographs. He held the bag out for Frank, and forgetting the meaning of patience, Frank all but snatched them from Oliver’s hand and forced himself to look down at the first image. It wasn’t the horror he’d been expecting.
“David took that one for me,” Oliver explained. “But I don’t want it if it makes you angry, Frank. You can have it. You can have all of them. I tried to find them all, Frank.”
Frank unzipped the plastic bag and removed the photo he’d been aware of. The picture Oliver had told him about, where he was on his bike. What startled Frank was that the photo seemed to have been taken at close range, since there weren’t many trees obstructing the image, and the idea of David getting so close without Frank realizing it was unsettling. But, other than that, the image seemed rather innocent. That’s probably why Frank found himself holding it out for Oliver when the other boy seemed nervous over his reaction.
“It’s yours,” Frank said. “Keep it if you want.”
“You don’t care?”
“I don’t care,” Frank insisted, and turned his attention to the next photo as Oliver quickly took the picture of Frank, as if he thought it would be snatched back at any moment. It nearly was, too, but only because Frank was startled by the next one. He recognized it as the day they’d moved in. He was standing with Rudy, both of them looking rather depressed and disappointed in front of their new home. And if Frank hadn’t known any better, he would have thought they’d posed for the picture. Facing the camera, their eyes seeming focused on the lens. It didn’t seem possible. The next picture was the same, only Frank’s mother was the subject, looking tired, but still more cheerful than her offspring. Her eyes were looking right through the picture at Frank. He frowned, wondering how none of them knew they were being photographed. “How did he do this?” Frank demanded, without looking up.
“David knows how to use a camera, Frank,” Oliver replied, as if it were obvious.
Frank continued to flip through, deciding that most of the pictures had been taken his first week there. There were some of him exploring the trails either alone or with Rudy, and one where he was kissing his mom goodbye as she got in the car to head to town. And the more he looked the more it became apparent that he was the main focus in the images. The photographs were decidedly unsettling, but there weren’t any taken through the windows of Frank’s house. He was disappointed, feeling that he still lacked the proof he’d been hoping to find. Frank was beginning to realize that he didn’t just think it had been David. He hoped it was.
He knew it was a switch from thinking that David was a victim of his parents, and it wasn’t that Frank had completely ruled that out, either. He remembered the unsocialized boy who’d been suspicious of an ice cream cone, and still felt sympathy. But, after hearing his mother mention that David might be responsible for mistreating Oliver, Frank found himself developing a quick bias against him. For Frank, it would make sense that David was the one sneaking around his house, especially now if Oliver was right when he said that David believed they only had each other. Maybe, Frank thought, David was jealous of his friendship with Oliver. It would go to his mom’s theory. And, as Frank thought of the attack the day before, recalling how their attacker had targeted Oliver first, he couldn’t help wondering if it really was Oliver’s brother. Jealous and angry brother. It could all make sense, if only Frank could prove it. If he proved it, then... well, Frank wasn’t sure what was supposed to come after that. Maybe he could help Oliver, because he was convinced that Oliver was in need of some sort of help. And if anything, he’d sleep easier at night.
Frank suddenly became aware of the cool breeze striking his face, and the hair at his nape prickled as he looked up, feeling crowded by the towering trees. He quickly slipped the photographs back into their bag and then placed them in his pocket as he got to his feet and held a hand down for Oliver. “Come on,” he insisted, realizing a strong urge to get out of there. “Let’s get back to my place, okay?”
Oliver took Frank’s hand, accepting the assistance off the forest floor, but seemed put off when Frank placed a firm hand on his shoulder to guide him back the way they’d come with a noticeable amount of force. “Is something the matter, Frank?” he asked, looking around curiously when Frank began to look over his own shoulder.
“No... I mean... I just get the creeps out here, you know?”
Oliver shook his head. “No, Frank.”
Frank sighed. “Let’s just go. You have to be home at four, right?”
“Yeah. Four o’clock, Frank.”
“Okay, well, maybe we have the time to watch a movie or something before then.”
Oliver smiled. “Okay, Frank.”
“Frank! Dad wants to talk to you!” Rudy called through the house, her voice nearly fading before it reached Frank’s bedroom where he calmly pushed back his bed sheets, walked barefooted across his bedroom floor, and slammed his door so hard that he was certain that the people in town could hear it.
That should get the point across, Frank decided as he yawned, stretched, and headed back to bed for another hour of sleep. It was another Saturday morning, and for days now, ever since their phone had been connected, Rudy had been making a point of calling their father. He’d even called them a few times, which made Frank rather eager to avoid answering the telephone. He didn’t want to talk to his dad, and the fact that the man suddenly wanted to talk to him didn’t make a whole lot of sense to Frank. It wasn’t as if the man had wanted to talk when they’d been in the same city, and there was no way that Frank was willing to set himself up for more disappointment by allowing his dad to think that he wanted to talk to him after all that.
He’d just crawled back into bed, pulling the covers nearly over the top of his head, when there was a soft tap on his door. His mother didn’t wait for him to answer before she stepped in to check on him, and Frank was forced to open his eyes.
“Are you alright?” Jessica asked.
Frank frowned and wiped some more sleep from his eyes. “Why do you let her talk to him? She’s just gonna get hurt.”
“I think he’s trying, Frank,” Jessica replied. “I’m not saying that you have to forgive him if you’re not ready to, but maybe...”
“I’ll never forgive him.”
Jessica sighed. “Okay. Listen, I’ve got to go to work pretty soon. There’s some more pancakes out here if you’re hungry, and you don’t have to worry about Rudy today. I’m taking her with me so she can meet a friend from camp.”
“I thought she didn’t have any friends.”
“Well, I guess she does now. Seems like a nice enough girl. Do you want to come, too? You’ve been asking to go.”
“No. Oliver’s coming over again today.” Oliver had been coming over just about every day, a small fact that had helped ease Frank’s mind. It was reassuring that Oliver’s parents were allowing the visits, and Frank had no intention of missing one.
“Well, you guys have fun, then... just remember, if you go out, or even if you’re here...”
“We’ll lock the doors,” Frank promised. “Can I use the car tonight when you get back?”
“I guess so,” Jessica replied, leaning back on the doorframe as she regarded her son. “Where do you plan to take it?”
“I don’t know,” Frank said grumpily. “I just wanna get out of here for a while. I’ll probably shop or go to a movie or something.”
“You’ll let me know before you leave?”
“Fine. I’ll let you know before I leave,” Frank agreed with all the hostility of a seasoned teenager. Jessica just smiled, loving him anyway.
Frank stared at the cracks in his ceiling as he waited for his mother to leave, and then he reached into his nightstand drawer and removed the plastic bags of photographs which had been there for nearly a week. Frank had done a lot of staring at them lately, and did some more after removing them from their plastic bag. He’d become quite familiar with the eight images over the last few days. They were beginning to frighten him less and less, only because he’d been walking around his property every morning attempting to discover where David could have hidden to take some of them, and had come up with a range of possibilities. That at least convinced Frank that David didn’t have some mutant ability to turn invisible. Very reassuring. Other things, though, were not.
Frank abandoned the idea of getting more sleep as soon as he heard his mom’s Subaru drive away from the house, and twenty minutes later he was dressed and outside, staring across the lake at the red roof of Oliver’s house with a pair of binoculars borrowed from Rudy. There was too much in the way to get a good view of anything other than the roof and the barn, but when a flash of yellow moving somewhere along the road leading to the house caught Frank’s attention, he focused on that. A yellow truck. It appeared that Oliver’s parents were leaving, so Frank looked back towards their property, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Martin children. Their boat was visible where it was docked, and he watched it for a few moments, knowing that it would be there for at least another few hours. Oliver usually came over after lunch. That meant that if Frank left for a while, he probably wouldn’t miss him.
He went to the shed, and a moment later he was on his bike and on the road, hoping he remembered the easy way to get to the other side of the lake.
The Martin house was quiet, the curtains drawn shut, no light coming from within. Frank frowned, wondering if anyone was home at all. It was possible that Oliver’s parents had taken him and David somewhere, but Frank doubted it. From his short conversations with Oliver he already knew that it was Mr. Martin who was most likely to go to town for work. Mrs. Martin worked from home, but on occasion the two of them went out together; but according to Oliver, they usually left him and David at home.
Frank felt hesitant as he climbed the steps and approached the door, and found himself tapping rather than knocking. A moment later he was lifting his fist to try again when he decided that no one would have heard him, but his hand paused in midair as the doorknob began to turn. Frank took a step back, his eyes lifting to a familiar face that made it possible for him to relax, and he smiled back at it. “Hey, Oliver. I know you were gonna come over later, but I was wondering if you wanted to come over early. It’s just about warm enough for swimming,” Frank observed. “But, uh, since I’m here, I was wondering if I could talk to David before we left.”
Oliver looked back at Frank, his smile slowly fading until it didn’t exist at all, and as he leaned back against the front door he crossed his arms in a defensive posture. “So what do you want with David, Frank?”
Frank’s eyes narrowed. “David?”
One of David’s shoulder’s shrugged. “Present. Come to give me grief about my hobby? What’s wrong, Frank, don’t like to get your picture taken? Personally, I think you’re pretty photogenic.”
“I just don’t like it when someone takes my picture and I don’t know about it,” Frank retorted. “Especially when they have to sneak around the bushes and peek through someone else’s windows. Did you learn how to do that in your stalker’s handbook, David?”
David pushed off of the door and took a step forward that Frank interpreted as somewhat threatening, but held his ground.
“You think it was me?” David demanded, sounding incredulously offended.
“Why not?” Frank replied. “Seems like you like sneaking around, and I’m pretty sure I owe you for this, too,” he added, indicating his lip, which was still visibly bruised.
David smirked. “If I’d hit you your teeth would be stuck to my knuckles about right now.”
The arrogance of the comment aggravated Frank, and suddenly all his frustrations were aimed pointedly at David as he blindly moved forward and gave David’s chest a shove. “Wanna prove that, asshole? Go the fuck on. You like pushing people around? Like pushing your brother around? Go ahead. Try me.”
Frank didn’t get the attack he’d expected, and even wanted. Instead, David made a point to step away as he looked at Frank like he’d lost his mind.
“You think I hurt Oliver?” David sounded as if the very idea was hilarious. “I’ve never touched him!”
“Then who did?” Frank demanded. “And don’t tell me I’m imagining things because a few days ago I saw him! And I don’t know what the hell’s going on around here but I know it has something to do with you!”
“And why not?” David snapped. “Everything is my fault--but I never touched Oliver!”
“Then who, David?”
“Who do you think?” David growled.
“Are you saying it was your parents?” Frank asked.
David fell silent for a long moment before he shook his head. “No. They wouldn’t hurt Oliver. And I ain’t got nothing more to say to you, Frank.”
David turned and reached for his door, but didn’t get it open before Frank grabbed his arm and spun him back around.
“Do they hurt you, David?”
David’s eyes met his guest’s suspiciously as he shook Frank’s hand off and his lip slowly turned up into a scowl. “You don’t get it? Do you?”
“What am I supposed to get, David?”
David laughed, and then met Frank’s eyes with a seriousness that almost seemed desperate. “Look around you. Look deeper.”
Frank sucked in a breath and gripped his hair, suddenly resisting the urge to pull it out. “No. No. You know what, David? If you don’t want to talk to me, fine. But if anything else happens to Oliver I swear I’ll mention it to everyone who walks past me until someone believes it because believe it or not, I do care about him, and I’d help you too if you could just knock off this cryptic bullshit for five minutes!”
David took an abrupt step forward, startling Frank into silence. “Oliver’s not here right now,” he said quietly. “Time to leave, Frank.”
“I don’t got no answers for you. Everything else you can see. You’re just not looking!” he said, sounding angry over it.
Frank opened his mouth to inform David that he sounded like a crazy person, but then closed it and decided that it wasn’t worth the effort as he turned and headed down the front steps. “Just tell Oliver to call me when he gets back,” Frank said as he reached his bike and began to walk it towards the road.
“Hey Frank,” David suddenly called, causing Frank to pause and look back at him. “Did it ever occur to you that whoever was looking in your windows wasn’t looking to take a picture of anyone in your family?”
Frank didn’t get to finish his response when David turned, walked into his house, and gave an obvious dismissal as he slammed the front door.
Frank didn’t know what time it was when he arrived home, but he knew that something wasn’t quite right when he got there. His mom’s car was parked on the side of the house, which he hadn’t expected. She should have been working until later that afternoon. When he saw that the front door had been left carelessly wide open, he felt a knot rise in his throat as he rushed towards it.
“Mom!” Frank called as he entered, looking around for any signs of trouble. “Mom!”
“In here, honey!” was the muffled response, and as he reached the kitchen he looked over the scene with a good amount of confusion. With good reason, he thought. The scene at the kitchen table was strange enough.
He had to look twice when he noticed not one, but two redheaded girls at the table sharing peanut-butter sandwiches. He was about to demand if Rudy had multiplied before both girls looked over their shoulders and he saw that one had glasses and a lot more freckles. He shook off the oddity of the picture they made and looked towards his mother, who was attempting to wrestle something out of the garbage disposal she’d insisted they install after moving in. Frank strode across the kitchen and pulled her hand out of the drain before he reached in himself and found the mangled spoon that had gotten trapped.
“Thank you,” Jessica said once he retrieved it. “I feel like I’ve been trying to pull that out forever. Where were you at?”
Frank ignored her question. “The front door’s wide open,” he said accusingly.
Jessica sighed. “I know. It’s just so hot in here and that swamp cooler’s starting to smell again.”
“You told me to lock the doors whether or not I’m home...”
“Frank,” Jessica cut him off, looking amused. “It’s hot. And I think letting some air in will do us some good. Besides, we’re all here now. Have you said hello to Rudy’s friend, Stephanie?” she asked pointedly, letting Frank know that he was being rude.
He sighed. “Hi, Stephanie.”
“Hi,” the girl replied, sounding too chipper for Frank’s current mood.
“Mom,” he started, but Jessica was already moving past him and into a plastic grocery bag left on the counter top. She reached in, and when she turned back to face him she was presenting a whistle connected to a shoelace.
“Here,” she said. “We’ve all got one. I couldn’t find anyplace that sold pepper spray, but if there’s any trouble, we can blow our whistles.”
Dumbfounded, Frank looked between the whistle and his mom until she finally rolled her eyes and put it around his neck herself. He noticed that Rudy was already wearing one before he finally cracked a smile and found himself trying not to laugh. But, he did manage to keep from telling his mom that he thought blowing a whistle at an attacker would be about as effective as trying to tickle one with a feather. “What are you doing home?” he asked. “I thought you were working today.”
Jessica’s smile faded, and she headed towards the living room. Frank couldn’t tell if it was because she planned to avoid the question, or if she didn’t want Rudy and her friend to hear her response.
“Mom?” he asked again when they reached the living room and his mom went about straightening things that didn’t need to be straightened.
“Everything’s fine, Frank. They just didn’t need me today, that’s all.”
“They fired you?” he demanded.
Jessica straightened. “No.” she said quickly. “But it seems that in this town, everyone has slow days. Even ice-cream stores on hot days.”
“They said they’d call me back next week if they needed help.”
“Frank,” Jessica said quickly. “Don’t make a big deal of it. We’re fine--and don’t you dare go looking for a job just because you think you need to support us. That’s not your job.”
“Well not all of it should be your job, either.”
Jessica sighed. “I talked to your dad a little this morning. He’s going to start paying child support.”
“And you believe that?” Frank asked skeptically.
“We’ll see what happens,” Jessica replied. “In the meantime, I don’t want you worrying about this... Your dad wants to talk to you, you know. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt if...”
“We’re not talking about this,” Frank stated.
Jessica fell silent, although it was obvious she wanted to say more. It was better that she didn’t. The short fuse Frank had when it came to his father had only become shorter over the last few days, and they both knew it. He needed more time.
“Okay,” Jessica relented. “But I don’t want you to worry about my job, alright? I’ll be teaching again before you know it.”
Frank gave a slow nod, also deciding against an argument. He was worried, and he was going to worry, but if it would prevent him from having to discuss his father, he could allow his mom to think that he was leaving all the worrying to her. For a little while.
“So are you back for the day?” he asked.
“Looks like it. Stephanie’s parents are probably going to come pick her up later. It turns out they live on our side of town. Isn’t that nice.”
“Yeah. Good for Rudy.”
Jessica smiled. “You can have the car now if you still want it. Any idea what you’ll be doing yet?”
Frank shook his head. “I’ll probably just look around town for a while, Mom. I’ll be back soon, too. Oliver should still be coming over in a while. Um, if he gets here before I get back, could you maybe ask him to wait for me?”
“I can do that,” Jessica agreed, smiling. “You guys are still getting along, then?”
“Yep,” Frank said before he leaned over to kiss his mom’s cheek. “Keys?”
“In my purse,” Jessica replied, knowing that her son would help himself. She watched him do just that as she went to where it was sitting near the front door. “Frank?”
“You are okay, right?” she asked.
Frank looked up to meet her eyes, and forced himself to smile somewhat genuinely. “I’m fine, Mom.”
For once, Frank saw the benefit of living in a small town.
“Jenny Woodmoore has a camera,” the woman with dark, silver-streaked hair explained from behind the gas-station counter, where Frank had stopped to fill up the Subaru. “She took the pictures for my daughter’s wedding just last year. Turned out real nice.”
“Do you know if she's in the photography club?” Frank asked.
“Well, I don’t know if you’d call it a club. But I think she gets together with her friends every once in a while. They’ve all got those fancy cameras. I think she’s working at Karrigan’s just down the street this summer. Maybe you could talk to her about it. She’s a real pretty girl,” she added with a wink.
Frank forced a smile. “Thanks... um, one more thing. Do you know where I can buy a camera?”
The woman smiled brightly, and pointed to a rack of disposable cameras near the register, claiming, “The best in town.”
No more than ten minutes later, Frank was discovering that Karrigan’s was one of the few restaurants in town as he pulled into the dirt lot in front of it. It seemed a little busier than the other businesses around, but not by much. As he entered, he felt like he was walking into a fancy McDonald’s that had a sour odor beneath the smell of greasy burgers and thick fries. A waitress approached him right off, and after a quick look at her bright yellow name tag, which didn’t say Jenny, he allowed her to show him to a table where he ordered a side salad and a soda. As soon as she disappeared, he was out of his booth and taking the long path to the restrooms, taking in everything he could on the way.
There was an old couple on one side of the room, and an older waiter, but the action seemed to be in the opposite corner where a girl around his age dressed in the restaurant garb leaned over a corner booth laughing at something one of the three guys--also around Frank’s age--said to her. He detoured towards them, watching her closely as she flipped a light brown ponytail over her shoulder, and then turned. A quick glance down at her right breast told him that she was who he was looking for, and he headed to the restrooms to wash his hands.
Frank’s meal wasn’t at his table by the time he returned, and in a last minute decision, he decided to switch tables, moving into Jenny Woodmoore’s section where he removed his newly purchased disposable camera from his packet and began to inspect it as if it were the most complicated instrument he’d ever come by. He only had to put on the act for about five minutes before Jenny Woodmoore was standing over his table, regarding him curiously with a small salad and a drink between her hands.
“Excuse me, this wouldn’t be yours, would it?” she asked.
Frank looked up into friendly blue eyes and smiled. “Oh, yeah,” he replied. “Hope you don’t mind, but I switched tables. The other one was in the sun. It’s pretty warm today.”
“That’s no problem,” Jenny insisted as she placed his food in front of him while Frank went back to playing with the camera. “If you need anything else just let me know.”
“Sure,” Frank said, before suddenly aiming the camera at the girl’s face. “Smile.”
To his surprise, Jenny not only grinned, but struck a pose as he took his picture, and when he lowered the camera, she grinned. “We don’t have a lot of tourists come through here,” she remarked, eyeing his five-dollar camera.
“Oh, I’m not,” Frank said quickly as he looked sheepishly down at the camera in his hands. “Actually, I just moved here.”
“Really? Wait--you have a little sister, right? Rudy? Red hair?”
“Yeah, actually,” Frank replied, now regarding Jenny somewhat suspiciously.
“She goes to my family’s summer camp,” Jenny said excitedly.
“Oh... um, yeah, that’s her.”
“I like her,” Jenny commented as she surprised Frank again by slipping into the booth across from him. “She talks about you a lot.”
“She mentioned a few things,” Jenny remarked as a slow blush crawled over her cheeks before she eyed Frank’s camera again and promptly changed the subject. “So are you just out looking at the town?”
“Nah,” he said. “I did that a few weeks ago. Actually... I lost my camera during the move.” He held up the disposable to explain. “I picked this up because... I thought it would be better than nothing. I really miss using mine, you know?”
“That’s awful. Do you think you’ll find it?”
“Probably not,” he said sincerely. “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to know where I could get another one around here, do you?”
Jenny looked thoughtful for a moment. “That depends. What kind was it?”
Frank blinked and then shook it off and did his best to sound humble. “Actually,” he said, lowering his voice, “I have no idea.” Jenny gave him an odd look, and he quickly explained. “It was a gift, from my grandmother. I mean, she died and left it to me.”
“It was a while ago,” he said quickly. “But I was sort of teaching myself how to use it, and I’d really like to find another.”
“Well, do you remember anything about it?”
“It took pictures.”
Jenny laughed. “Okay... hmm, you could try Mr. Gelve’s garage. It sort of doubles as a pawn shop, and he might have something there. But don’t get your hopes up. If you want to spend some money, I special-ordered mine.”
Frank raised his eyebrows. “You’re into photography?”
Jenny grinned. “Definitely. Actually, there’s a whole group of us that gets together on Sundays. There’s not much else to do around here, really... you wouldn’t be interested in coming sometime, would you? It’s just a bunch of kids from school.”
“I don’t know,” Frank said carefully. “I mean… would you wanna show up with this?” He glanced at his camera, and Jenny smiled.
“I’ll let everyone know what happened. I swear they won’t make fun of you. You should come--we’ll all be going to school together in the fall, anyway.”
Frank frowned. “That’s nice of you... Jenny.” He made sure to look at her name tag again. “But I don’t know...”
“Look,” she said, standing as an older man appeared across the room and regarded her disapprovingly, “I’ve gotta get back to work. If you wanna come we’ll be meeting here around eleven o’clock. Just after church.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Will I see you there?” Jenny asked.
Frank looked at her as if she were deaf. “Like I said, I’ll...”
“No,” she said, laughing. “Will I see you at church?”
“We’ll talk about it more then,” she insisted, and then rushed off to carry on with her duties.
Frank sat back in his seat as he watched her walk away. Currently, there were two things he hoped for. First, he hoped that Howard Crook was as unreliable as Frank thought he was, and hadn’t mentioned his family to any of Jenny’s friends. Second, he hoped that he could talk his mom into letting him use the car again before eleven o’clock tomorrow.
It looked like Oliver had attempted to get his hair to stay down today. It seemed neater somehow, but still stuck up in places from constantly running his fingers through it. Frank had noticed the habit a while ago. There were times when Oliver would fall silent, as if contemplating something important, and his hands would take turns going to his head, his fingers reaching for the scars beneath his hair. He did that now as he stared at an outdated tetris game on Frank’s computer.
“Hey,” Frank said as he stepped past the door. His mom had directed him there when he’d arrived home and asked if Oliver had shown up. It seemed that Jessica had sent Oliver there since Rudy was already over at Stephanie’s house, and she was busy putting lesson plans together.
Oliver hadn’t heard Frank come in, and stood quickly, appearing startled as he turned to face him. His smile came soon enough, though. “Hi, Frank. I’ve been waiting for you. Are we gonna go swimming now?”
Frank looked over Oliver, noting the light-blue swimming shorts he was wearing below a dark t-shirt, and frowned. “I was thinking about going swimming earlier,” he admitted. “Did David tell you?” Frank didn’t think it was likely. It seemed obvious to him that David didn’t approve of his friendship with Oliver. But, Oliver’s nervous expression told a different story. “Really?” Frank asked, without waiting for a verbal response. “I didn’t think he’d even tell you I was there.”
“David’s mad again,” Oliver replied. “I don’t wanna talk about him right now, Frank.”
Frank let out a breath, not at all as frustrated as he usually was when Oliver dodged his questions. In fact, this time, he agreed with Oliver. He didn’t want to talk about David, either. He hadn’t been particularly pleased with their conversation that morning. He’d hoped to find answers, but only walked away with questions, and the same lingering suspicion that David had been sneaking around his house. But there was more to it now. There was the photography club. He had as much doubt towards David’s involvement as he had suspicion. He supposed that he didn’t want to rule anything out just yet, but he needed a break from it. At least, until tomorrow.
“You know what, Oliver?” Frank said as he closed his bedroom door. “Let’s go swimming. You want to do it here, or do you know a better place?”
Oliver grinned. “We can take my boat, Frank.”
Frank thought that sounded good enough, so long as they didn’t run into any floating, dead animals. He went to his drawers, unpacked his long-lost swim trunks, and stripped down to pull them on, not putting much thought into the way that Oliver had fallen silent as he watched, but Frank did find himself laughing when he caught the other boy blushing.
Downstairs, they said goodbye to Jessica, and Frank promised he’d be back before it got too dark before they headed out with a couple of towels and the bottled water his mom had insisted that they have. Frank was glad they took it. It was a hot day, the kind that caused the sun to sting their skin and the humidity refused to allow them to escape the heat. But at least the water was cool. In fact, it was cold enough to be uncomfortable in some of the deeper areas, so Oliver took the boat to one of the wider coves. They could see his red roof from it, but the area was still quiet, and perfect for swimming. Although, Frank had to be convinced of that last thing when he felt something brush up against his knee as soon as he jumped in the water. Fortunately, Oliver convinced him that it was likely a piece of driftwood, and assured him that he’d never seen snakes in the particular area.
“Snakes?” Frank demanded, appalled.
Oliver grinned. “Saw a whole nest of them the other day.”
“That’s not funny, Oliver.”
“You have to be careful if you see them in the water, Frank. They’ve got poison. D’you know what a water moccasin looks like? I’ve got some pictures of them I can show you. The babies look different from the big ones. You should know what all of them look like.”
“You’ll tell me if you see one, right?” Frank asked as he warily looked down at the murky water he was treading.
Oliver laughed as he launched himself through the water towards Frank. “I’ll make sure none get close to you, Frank,” he promised as he circled around behind Frank, wrapping both arms loosely around his neck to hold on.
“You’d better not,” Frank grumbled, and then smiled despite himself when he felt Oliver’s nose gently nudging at his damp hair. He turned in the water to meet Oliver’s eyes, and with a playful smirk Frank dug his fingers into the other boy’s ribs, tickling until Oliver was laughing so hard he could hardly stay above the water on his own. This prompted both of them to move a little closer to land, where they could feel the rough bottom of the lake beneath their toes. Oliver enthusiastically dunked himself and came up shaking out his hair, causing Frank to laugh.
“I don’t wanna go home soon, Frank,” Oliver commented. “I wanna stay with you for a long time.”
“My mom said you could sleep over some time. Do you think your parents would let you?”
Oliver’s smile faded as he shook his head. The negative response was exactly why Frank hadn’t asked the question sooner, among other reasons. “They’ll say no, Frank.”
“That’s okay,” Frank insisted as he reached for Oliver’s waist and pulled the other boy towards him. “Maybe some other time. And we still have a while before you have to go home, right?”
Oliver nodded, and his smile returned when Frank leaned forward until their noses touched, and then their lips.
Frank hadn’t bothered to tell Oliver that he wasn’t sure they should be kissing after the first time he’d done it, and it had quickly become obvious that he’d changed his mind. Oliver had a lot to do with that when he’d promised that Frank wasn’t pushing anything on him, which had been Frank’s main concern. And, Frank enjoyed the affection they shared. It was torture sometimes, the way he tried to take things slow. He liked it best when Oliver made the first move, and sometimes afterwards he’d question how involved he should actually become with Oliver, but he’d decided that time would answer that question. The fact was, Frank was less lonely with Oliver. He’d known he had feelings for him, but it seemed that every day he saw him they’d develop just a little bit more, and every day the things he thought were different about Oliver seemed less important, almost as if they didn’t exist. Except one thing. The innocence factor was still bothering Frank, and not just within their developing physical relationship.
Even if the Martins had agreed to let Oliver and Frank see each other, Frank was still worried over what went on in Oliver’s home. But since Oliver insisted that he wasn’t being mistreated, Frank was forced to rationalize that perhaps he was seeing a problem that wasn’t there. Maybe it was possible that he wanted to find something wrong, because if his attention was on the Martins, then it wasn’t on his own broken family. If this was true, then Frank knew that it wasn’t fair to Oliver, but even so, it was difficult not to worry, because even when Oliver claimed that nothing was wrong, there was another boy living in that house that seemed more wrong to Frank every time he came to mind.
Oliver’s eyes were closed when Frank gently pulled away from the kiss, giving him a moment to study the other boy’s peaceful expression; his eyelashes looked longer, wet and clotted together, his pink tinted cheeks and slightly puffy lips as his tongue slipped out to taste where Frank had just been. Frank suddenly wanted to pull him closer and hold onto him. He seemed fragile, and because of that Frank hated anyone who’d ever want to harm him. “Does he hurt you?” Frank asked, and Oliver’s eyes snapped open.
“I don’t understand, Frank,” Oliver said quietly.
Frank sighed, and didn’t explain himself. Instead, he kissed Oliver again, a gesture that was responded to with an equal effort. Right now, Frank decided, it was just better to kiss him.
He didn’t know how late it was, but outside his window Frank saw nothing but shadows. Darkness, seeping through the glass just as sunlight might have. He couldn’t seem to move from that spot, despite the fact that he was uncomfortable there with the awful creaks and moans that his mother insisted were normal for such an old house. The dripping of water from the gutters outside seemed to grow louder in his ears, alerting him to the fact that the glass was cracked open and a warm breeze was coming through the screen, bringing with it the musky scent of the nearby lake. A layer of goose bumps rose over his skin as the rough, thin fur of the feline sharing his room brushed against his leg. All it had taken to tame this beast was a piece of hotdog, but Frank still cautiously stepped away from it. He still had battle wounds all up his arms from wrestling the creature out from under his sister’s bed--the feline’s favorite place in the house, it seemed. His mom had wanted him to throw it out of the house, considering how aggressive the cat had seemed, but Frank had brought her--he’d checked--into his own room instead. She’d seemed annoyed by the situation at first, but now it was apparent that the cat was enjoying more comfort than Frank currently was.
His eyes rose to the dark window again, and this time jumped as a startled cry became clogged in his throat at the sight of a human outline in front of his face. The shadow stepped closer, prompting Frank to step back, blindly reaching for anything that might become a weapon. But as the face appeared more clearly, his panic became confusion as he looked out at Oliver’s grinning face.
“Christ!” Frank cursed as he leaned closer before beckoning for Oliver to remain where he was. He didn’t bother pulling pants on over his boxers as he left his room, and then the house. Barefoot he moved around in the darkness, his eyes searching out his unexpected guest. “Oliver?”
Frank reached the outside of his own bedroom window, only to find that no one was there. He frowned, and then jumped at the tap on his shoulder. “Damn it, Oliver!” he cursed, spinning around. “What are you doing...”
Frank’s voice seemed to fade away as he met eyes, shining at him through the darkness, dark and furious. It was Oliver’s face, but the expression...
David stepped forward pointedly, lifting an object threateningly in his left hand. Frank couldn’t seem to move as he stared at the object, silver and shining, polished to perfection, just like always, and as it came down with a blunt force towards his head all he could think was that his dad never would have given one of his old soccer trophies to David. They were even more important to him than Frank and his sister were; his dad had taken those stupid trophies, but...
Frank’s eyes snapped open. A glance at the glowing numbers on his clock told him that it was just past three in the morning. His chest was vibrating, and lifting a hand, he found the cat curled up and purring there. His throat felt dry and his head ached, and there was a faint ringing in his ears as he looked around at the shadows in his dark room, feeling disoriented. He released a shaky breath, purposely not looking towards his window, which he somehow knew, was cracked open, and his hands shook as he lifted them to his sweat-dampened hair. He took a few deep breaths, and then fell still, listening carefully as he realized that the ringing wasn’t coming from inside his ears at all, but somewhere in the house. They hadn’t had the phone that long, and Frank wasn’t used to the sound.
He moved the cat away from him carefully, or at least he tried to. It didn’t work. She was quick to object to being pushed aside, and as she leapt onto the floor he winced when her claws momentarily dug into his chest. The pain succeeded in waking him, and he forced himself from his bed. He regretted it as soon as his bare feet touched the floor and he became lightheaded from standing up too fast.
Half walking, half stumbling, Frank made his way out his door and down the narrow hall, pausing at the doors of his mom’s and sister’s bedrooms. Rudy’s door was cracked, and he could hear her softly snoring, undisturbed by the phone disrupting the night. His mom’s door was closed, and after a moment of listening, he decided that the noise wasn’t bothering her, either. He continued on, careful not to stub his toes on the furniture as he reached the living room.
Each ring of the phone sounded more insistent than the last, causing nervous tension to swell in Frank’s chest, but he didn’t rush. He paused in front of the phone, sat down in the cozy arm chair next to it, and even took the time to clear the sleep from his throat before he answered groggily, not putting nearly enough thought into who would possibly be calling his house at three in the morning.
“Hullo?” he mumbled, still rubbing at his eyes, which seemed slow to adjust to the severe darkness of the house, even after sleep.
The response came in a whisper. “Is it you, Frank?”
Frank blinked. Arron? Eric? Isaac? No. Couldn’t have been any of his friends from back home. He’d never called them with his number, only written again to give it to them, hoping for some sort of response so he could save on the long-distance bill. “Who is this?” he asked, and cleared his throat again when his voice came out scratchy. He felt thirsty. Really thirsty.
“Did you really mean it? Would you do it, Frank? Would you help?” The voice seemed shaky. Distant.
Frank woke up a little more, his awareness prickling. “I don’t know...” he said cautiously. “Who is this?”
Another whisper. “You know who.”
There was a long silence as the caller waited for Frank to respond, and when he finally did, he sounded far from happy. “David? Do you know what fucking time it is?” He was irritated. He’d given his number to Oliver. Not David. His recent nightmare seemed reason enough to hang up now, but he didn’t. “What are you even doing calling me at...”
“I can’t do it anymore,” David interrupted. “I don’t want to. You can make it stop. You’re different.”
Frank paused a beat, beginning to listen to what David was saying, ignoring his irritation over the situation. “You can’t do what anymore?”
“It’s too much. Too fucking much!” David suddenly burst out. “I’m not here... I’m never here. I’m empty.”
“Did you get into your parent’s liquor cabinet or something?”
“I can’t love them. I don’t know how anymore. I don’t. I don’t. What do I do, Frank? Stop it? I can stop it. I will stop it.”
“David, what are you talking about?” Frank asked. David kept saying his name, but it didn’t seem like he was actually talking to him. “Just tell me, okay? Did something happen? Where’s Oliver?”
There was another silence, and even through the phone Frank could feel the anger on the other end of the phone, so much so that he felt himself recoil even before David’s next outburst. “Not Oliver! Stop with Oliver! It’s always fucking Oliver!”
“Shit. Okay... David, is everyone there alright? David?”
Mary Martin looked around the corner, into the living room where David was now pacing with the phone in his hand.
“No,” he hissed into the receiver. “Alright? Alright? It’s never alright, Frank.”
She thanked god that his back was to her and he didn’t know she’d left her room yet, and cursed him because of who he was on the phone with. She knew it was a bad idea to let Oliver see that boy. Now, David was going to tell him everything. She couldn’t let that happen.
Holding her hand over her fast-swelling black eye, she moved cautiously back to her bedroom to think for a moment. Damn Brian! She had been completely unprepared to be awakened in the middle of the night as David snuck back through his bedroom window. She’d been afraid that Oliver had had a bad dream and went to check on him, but ended up with a confrontation to deal with instead, and she’d have to face it alone. She hadn’t been surprised to find her husband gone. She woke up to that more often than not, the same way she often smelled Francine Barker’s favorite perfume all over his clothes when he came home from town. Normally, she didn’t mind it. If he was with Francine, then he was leaving her alone, but tonight... damn him, she needed him tonight.
There was a thud in the living room, furniture crashing as David cursed, and she jumped. He was just a boy, she told herself. But then, the pain in her eye reminded her that he was a strong boy. He’d threatened to kill her more than once, and she was beginning to believe he’d actually do it. But she had to stop him this time. Stop him before he ruined everything. Things were quiet. Peaceful. She wouldn’t let him take that away.
Blindly, Mary Martin reached over her dresser, feeling a picture frame and a bible before she felt the thick, cheap candle holder Brian had given her last year for Christmas. She held it in her hand for a moment, concerned over the weight... she couldn’t strike him too hard. Had to be careful. She wrapped it in Brian’s pillow case, hoping it would provide the safety net she needed.
On tiptoes she snuck back into the living room, careful not to trip, careful not to breathe. She did her very best not to make a sound as she eyed David, now leaning over the windowsill, his head hung, the phone still to his ear. He was speaking softly, and as she grew closer, she could hear what he was saying.
“Do you know what it’s like, Frank? Do you know it’s like to be seen but not heard?... I do. I’m ready to tell you now. I’ll tell you everything.”
Mary crept even closer, raising the candle holder only to lower it again, hesitating. She couldn’t do this. No. She had to.
“I know what it’s like to not exist,” David whispered. “And when I do... they take the light away.”
Mary lifted the object in her hand once more, closed her eyes, and swung, hoping that it wasn’t too hard as she hard the blow make contact with the back of her son’s head. Her eyes snapped open when she heard him fall, and looking down, she was faced with David’s startled eyes, now glazed over, watering a stream of tears as he stared back at her and struggled to keep the phone to his ear while he managed a few last words before he dropped.
“They always take... the light away. Help me.”