WHAT LIES WITHIN: CHAPTER 9
Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without, and know we cannot live within.
-- James Baldwin
"Yo, Rusty dude! Wait up!"
I looked back to see Tim Petersen skating frantically to catch up with me. I kept up my casual pace as I cruised lazily down the sidewalk, realizing he would catch up with me soon enough. I was still in a pissy mood after dealing with Mr. B's little surprise this afternoon.
"Hey dude, you gonna hit the bowl today?" he asked, panting from the extra effort it took for him to catch up with me.
"Nah...I'm pretty wiped. Plus, I got a lotta shit to do," I answered glumly.
He gave me a look that told me I wasn't being very convincing.
"Russ man, you sure everything is cool with you? I mean, no offense dude, but you look like crap."
I sighed to myself again. God, I'm sure even he could see the bags under my eyes. These stupid dreams I've been having are killing me. I just gotta figure out a way to get more sleep. But, the more I sleep, the more I dream, and...Aaaghhh! Don't even get me started...
"Tim, dude (it's kinda funny really, that he doesn't have a nickname around here like almost every other skater...he's always been, well...just Tim), I'm really tired man. I just need to catch up on some sleep. No big deal." I said, with more conviction this time.
He gave me another look that told me he was evaluating my answer, and I guess he eventually decided to give me the benefit of the doubt and accept it for now. It surprised me that he actually seemed a little bit concerned for my well-being. But, combined with last Friday at the skate park, I realized that he's always been a little bit like that. Hell, he'd probably be a pretty good friend if I actually let him. I liked Tim ok, and he's a pretty easy guy to be around...but I just can't do the friend thing, ok? We've already been over that...
I was feeling like a complete asshole again, and suddenly I decided to do something about it. I stopped abruptly, and he stopped shortly afterward, circling back to me with a questioning look.
"Hey Tim, uh...well...thanks for asking about me, ok?" I said, giving him my best sincere, but cool, look. "And, thanks for watchin' out for me at the bowl last Friday. I was being a total asshole to you, and to the kid. I'm sorry man."
He gave me a penetrating stare for a moment. "Ya know, Rusty...you aren't the only one in the world with issues in their life," he said, with uncharacteristic seriousness. "If ya ever need somebody to listen, I'm here. Some day you're gonna have to get past your little act, Rusty, and get real. The longer you wait, the harder it's gonna be, dude. You know what they say...no man is an island. Sooner or later you're gonna have to let someone in."
I'm sure it musta taken me a few seconds to wipe the panicked and confused look off my face. What did he mean by that? Did he really have some idea just what it was that lived inside me?
"Um...ya. Whatever. But thanks again, man," I replied, desperately trying to ignore the blaring sirens and flashing lights going off inside my head.
He gave me a knowing smile. "No sweat, Rusty. Just get some sleep, and get your head screwed on right, will ya? Hey, I know, maybe that's just what you need...to get screwed!" he laughed, no longer in his serious mode. "Too bad there's no parties tonight, that I know of at least...but anyway, catch ya tomorrow, dude," he said, as he took off on his board and headed in the direction of the park.
Ya, right...I rolled my eyes to myself at that thought. Like I needed to get laid...Fuck, I've already had sex with the kid twice in my head, and it was the best sex I've ever had in my life--even counting the times when I was awake! My nuts still ache when I think about how hard it made me shoot.
I guess it was pretty weird; having nightmares that made you cum harder than anything you've ever felt in your life...was that, like, an oxymoron or something? Could I really call them nightmares if they made me cum in my sleep?
I felt a familiar twitch in my shorts. Damn, Rusty. You just have to stop thinking like that. It's not helping!
I got myself home, locked myself in my room, and collapsed on my bed again. I was so tired, I could hardly think straight...yet my mind was so occupied with all these different thoughts and concerns, it seemed unlikely that I would ever get to sleep. Maybe that was a good thing...I'm not sure I'm ready for another one of those dreams right now...
My paranoid brain was still obsessing on the fact that Tim Petersen seemed to know so much about what was going on with me lately...but how could he possibly know? Did he know me better than I thought? Or was it just a lucky guess? Intuition?
Sure, I've known him for a long time...lemme see...since about second or third grade, I'm pretty sure. I tried to remember the first time I met him...it was at Billy Jenkins' house, I think. A birthday party for Billy, I was starting to recall. Oh yeah...but, as I was remembering it more clearly now, I realized that Tim didn't live in our town at that time (he would move here the next summer, though). He was there at the party because he was...Shit! Now I remember! He was Billy's cousin!
Damn. I guess I had buried that memory deep inside me along with all my other painful memories of Billy.
Hmmm...Tim was Billy's cousin. I even remember him at Billy's funeral, now that I think about it. I vaguely recall him giving me strange looks several times during the service; but, I was so totally freaked out, it didn't really register in my head at the time. Yet, that image was as clear in my head right now, as if it had happened just yesterday. Strange.
I remember Billy had been pretty close to Tim...they were more like best friends than cousins. He didn't know about Billy, did he? About Billy and me?
God, Billy...I hope you never told him about us!
Eventually, I managed to fall into the deep black pit of an unsatisfying sleep. I don't remember having any dreams that night, but I didn't feel all that rested when I woke up almost 12 hours later, either.
Normally, it would have been just another inane day at school...but today felt subtly different, somehow. I sat there staring at the stupid clock, just waiting to get this day over with. It was almost time for fifth period to end, and normally I would be leavin' to go home (being a senior, I didn't really need to take another class during sixth to have enough credits to graduate, and I definitely enjoyed my shorter days...). But now, I have to wait for him to come in every day with the sixth period crew, so I can tutor him a little bit on Photoshop, and keep Mr. B off my ass.
I was trying to convince myself that I was still pissed off about it, but I was having a hard time making myself believe it. Sure, I was concerned about the fact that he could still do something stupid and make both of our lives miserable. But, I also had this odd feeling of anticipation inside me. Maybe it was just unresolved feelings I still had about the whole Billy Jenkins episode of my life. Shit, here I go again...I have to get that fucking dream out of my head!
Isn't there some kind of old saying about those who fail to learn from the past being condemned to repeat it, or something like that?
I turned in my chair, and stared out the window for a while (I don't really know what I expect to see when I do that, but it always seems appropriate when you're thinking to yourself about something, doesn't it?). Maybe it was simply all his fault. Whenever I was around him, I just had this sense that I was re-living that whole painful episode in so many ways...I could still vaguely feel the ache that Billy had left in my heart.
But, he just reminded me so much of Billy at times. I mean, the kid was cute enough, but not a teen-dream model type. No, it was just the whole innocent, kinda helpless and vulnerable thing he had going. He was kinda like a little puppy...you just wanna pick him up and scratch his ears or something. He seemed so totally incapable of meanness, deceit or dishonesty...I could just tell that what you saw was what you got with him. At times, he seemed totally transparent to me...like I could see right inside his head. Weird, huh?
I was startled out of my little internal conversation by the sound of the sixth period bell. I looked up, and there he was...just standing there, waiting patiently for me to come back from outer space. I bet he's probably been standing there for a while already...afraid to interrupt me, or something. I mean, he still seems afraid of his own shadow most of the time. I guess we'll just have to work on that...
When he realized that I was finally aware of his presence, he let out a little smile and gave me a shy wave.
"Uh...hey...uh, Rusty. I read the book you gave me last night, ya know. You can have it back now, if you...uh...need it, or anything," he said cautiously handing it back to me.
I chuckled to myself. "Dude," I said, "you're gonna need it to read the rest of the chapters, aren't you?"
He looked confused. "Uh, well...no...uh...I mean, um...I read the whole book last night, actually. Twice."
Now, I was the one who was confused.
"Don't be fuckin' with me, man...you really do need to read through it a few times to completely understand it. Plus, you'll probably need to keep it for a reference to help guide you through the first few projects I give you to practice on, ok? Don't worry, it's ok dude, I'm happy to work with you on this...I was just blowin' off some steam yesterday. I'm not pissed with you, alright?" I stated, suddenly worried that he was trying to give me any easy out...assuming I would bail on him the first chance I got.
"Well, uh...thanks," he said, "But I really don't think that I'll need it any more. I really have read it all the way through two times. I should be ok without having it to refer to; I mean, I have pretty good recall for stuff like that."
Is he fuckin' with me? I gave him a hard look, but I couldn't see anything in his eyes to tell me that he was jerkin' me off here...
"Who are you, Evelyn Wood? Some kind of speed reader or something?" I asked with a little surprise.
"Somethin' like that, I guess," he said, looking down at the floor in embarrassment.
"And, you think you have everything in that book in your head now, huh? Well, then smart guy, have a seat here and we'll see what you can do with it, ok?"
He sat down, and looked up at me kinda nervously.
"Open Photoshop," I said, "And go to the recent files list. Open the image labeled `practice' and we'll have a look at it."
He easily accomplished that with a few clicks. So far, so good.
"Ok, now I want you to practice on this image. First, I want you to pull up the histogram and have a look at it. Tell me what you see," I directed him.
Two more quick clicks, and he was right there.
"Uh, well...let's see," he answered, "The tonal balance is pretty messed up. You can see how the histogram is all spiked up in the dark range...which means the image is too dark, and it has too much contrast, and not enough balance through the middle tones. Whoever shot this really blew it. I mean, if you spot metered it correctly, you'd never have this problem..." he went on.
"Well, thanks for the critique dude...next time I'll try and do a better job when I shoot a picture, ok? But obviously, I'm not a `professional' like you are," I said dryly. "But, you're right. So, what about the image? What are we gonna do to fix it?" I asked.
"Should be pretty simple," he said. After a few more clicks, he had done basically the same things that I would have done.
"So, what else would you do to get this image ready for production?"
"Well, I might crop it a little differently...maybe sharpen up some of the details?" he asked out loud, but mostly to himself.
"Ok," I said, "do whatever you think is needed and we'll print it out. Then, we'll print out the edit I did on it last period, and see how they compare."
"Fuck," I muttered to myself under my breath. He was standing there right behind me, looking over my shoulder as we compared the two images (like I said, he's a couple inches taller than me...). I could lightly feel his breath on my neck, as we compared the two images side by side. Immediately, I realized to myself that his was clearly better.
"Uh, that looks real good, dude. I like the crop you made...and you did a good job of rescuing the mid-tones that were lost in the original. Damn, you're pickin' this stuff up pretty quick. Some of those retards still haven't figured it out after two semesters," I said, nodding my head in the direction of the other workstations, which were empty now.
He gave me another shy little smile.
"Thanks," he said quietly, then looked down at his shoes.
I turned slightly, and looked at him closely. Just who the fuck was this kid? Why did everything he did seem to have some kind of continuously growing affect on my life? It seems like almost every time I turn around the last few days, there he is...doing it again. Man, this is just getting to be so weird...I feel like I'm living through an episode of the twilight zone the last few days.
As my eyes continued to delve deep inside of him, I began to see past the complete lack of social skills, the dufus clothes, and the painful shyness, I was beginning to see a whole other person standing there. He was obviously really smart, and he was a very talented photographer. If he would just stand up straight, and find a little self-confidence (and maybe a new wardrobe consultant...), the whole world could see that he was actually a pretty cool guy, it seemed to me.
I could feel the balance between my well-ingrained fears and my growing attraction to him subtly shifting inside me...somehow, as impossible as it seemed, it felt like the fear was beginning to lose.
Finally, I caught myself staring into his eyes, and the shock of it brought me out of my little daydream. But, what really shocked me the most was that the more I stared into his eyes, the more I could see beyond the awkwardness and the shyness I had seen in them at first...I could see there was warmth and caring, and an almost frightening intelligence in them. Frightening, and frightened.
He gave me a curious look. "Uh, well...heck! What is it, Rusty?" he finally asked quietly, in frustration. "I mean, the way you keep staring at me...like I know the answer to some question you have in your head. It kinda freaks me out when you do that mind-reader thing. If ya wanna know something, just ask me, ok? I'm really not as much of a geek as you must think I am. I mean, just because I'm, uh...well, you know...it doesn't mean, um...it doesn't mean that you can't just talk to me like a normal person, alright?" he said, with a little indignation.
Shit! I was a little embarrassed at being caught staring at him, and I blushed slightly (now who's the shy one, Rusty?).
"Sorry, dude. I guess I'm just a little curious about you," I said, honestly. "Here you come out of nowhere, and you're like some kind of freakin' genius or something! You read a two-inch thick software manual in one day, and memorize it. You say you've never used Photoshop before, but look at this print, man! It's way better than mine, and that kinda pisses me off...it's really not quite as easy as you just made it look, dude!
"I'm gettin' the impression that you're really a pretty amazing guy. But, I have to say that I'm also kinda confused, because you totally hide it. You could be one of the smartest and best-looking guys in the whole school, yet you're like a shadow around here...almost totally invisible."
He gave me a strange look, like the mere idea of what I had just said was totally ridiculous. "I just keep to myself. I'm not a real `social' person, I guess," he said quietly.
I could see that this was gonna take a little work; he just didn't seem to get it. And, at this point, I was totally intrigued...I just had to know more about him. Somehow, I managed to toss an entire lifetime of fears and inhibitions completely aside. I was determined to talk to him some more. But clearly, this wasn't the place for it at all.
"Dude...c'mon. Let's get outta here," I suggested. "I've seen enough for one day."
He gave me a surprised look.
"But Rusty, this is my sixth period. I can't leave yet," he said with concern.
"Fuck that," I replied. "It won't be a problem. Just trust me, ok?"
He looked confused. I could tell part of him kinda wanted to go with me, but his conscience was givin' him a hard time.
"Look...I'll square everything with Mr. B. Don't worry about it, ok? Just think of it as a field lesson," I suggested. Again, I looked into those big pale-blue eyes, and tried to will him the faith to trust me.
"Well...uh...I guess so...but if I get busted for this, my parents will kill me, and..."
"Cool," I replied, before he could finish that thought. "Grab your stuff and follow me."
"Just act like you're supposed to be here, dude. Don't act all guilty and shit, and they won't hassle you, ok?" I explained as we crossed the parking lot to leave the school.
He shot me a worried look, but pressed on with as much confidence as he could muster.
As we walked in silence for a moment, part of me was totally amazed that I was even doing this. I mean, on the one hand, he was clearly the biggest threat to my peaceful existence I had ever encountered, yet I actually found myself wanting to spend time with him. It felt like I was walking along an increasingly razor-thin edge, but suddenly I didn't really care. Something inside told me I just had to do this...and I wasn't gonna let fear or common sense stand in my way at this point. It really wasn't about making a choice...it was more about satisfying a need that was buried deep inside me.
Once we hit the sidewalk, I turned to look at him again. But, I found that he was already staring at me, obviously deep in thought himself. When he noticed me, his eyes snapped back down to the sidewalk again. Then, I watched with curiosity, as he slowly gathered his courage and looked up at me again, with a question apparent in his eyes.
"Why?" he asked. "I mean...you know, why are you doing this? Two days ago you told me to get lost and leave you alone. I mean, I'm not complaining...because you know...well, uh...that I kinda like you and all..."
Man, he sure doesn't have any trouble getting' to the point, does he?
Shit, what am I gonna tell him? I mean, I can't really just tell him the truth, can I? (Even if I really did know what the truth actually was...). No way! Don't even think about it Rusty! Hmmmm...time to stall. I need to buy myself some time to think up something to say, or avoid an answer completely...Think, Rusty...think!
"You thirsty dude?" I finally asked, pointing across the street to the AM/PM Mini Market, after the tiniest of awkward little hesitations..."I'm gonna grab a coke. You want one?" Whew...Good save, Rusty!
He gave me another questioning look.
"My treat. It's cool...don't worry about it, ok?" I said, trying to make him feel more at ease.
"Ok...fine," he said. "Thanks."
We sat down with our drinks on the curb in the parking lot, under the shade of a tree. It was a pretty regular teen hang out spot, but most of the usual kids weren't out of school yet.
"So...uh...you didn't really answer my question, you know..." he said, giving me an anxious look.
I looked long and hard into his eyes, trying to figure out just what he was getting at. But, I couldn't find anything in there except caution...and a little ray of hope.
"Ummm...Rusty? You're doing it again, man...You know, that mind-reader thing?" he said. "Like I said, it kinda freaks me out when you do that, ok?"
I let out a big sigh. "Sorry. It's just that...sometimes...well, I just can't help it. I don't really know why, but I just can't. There's just something about your eyes...and it really reminds me of someone I used to know, and..."
I stopped in a panic, as soon as I realized where my mouth was heading with this conversation. I immediately gave him a worried glance, afraid that he may have somehow intuited what was going through my head...but all I could see was a growing look of concern in those big, soft pale-blue eyes. I put my head in my hands, and tried to fight off the wave of nausea that was wracking my stomach at that moment.
No! I told myself. He's not Billy! I can't go there. It's just too scary to even think about...
"You ok?" he asked. "I didn't mean to...well, you know...uh...I just couldn't understand why you were...I mean...um...I just appreciate it, ok?"
I felt his hand gently touch my shoulder, and it shocked me right to the center of my heart. I couldn't help but flinch noticeably. That one small gesture was all it took to turn my entire life upside down.
I began to cry.
I didn't want to...hell, I tried desperately not to...but I just couldn't hold it back anymore. I blubbered like a baby for the first time since I was twelve. I could see my whole carefully planned existence slipping away from me. All of a sudden, I just couldn't seem to stop myself from having those feelings about him. I was losing control...all my walls were crumbling around me, and I felt helpless to stop it. I was afraid. Ok, scared to death, really.
NO! DON'T YOU SEE? I JUST CAN'T BE LIKE THIS!
He didn't even seem to have the common sense to respect those walls I had so carefully built up around myself over the years. Everyone else did...but maybe he was just too damn nice...too caring, to even notice them. Somehow, he had managed to break right through them in a few short days like they weren't ever there.
He just sat there patiently with his hand reassuringly on my shoulder...occasionally rubbing it a little bit, but saying nothing. As much as that small gesture felt good, it was also the very thing that had started my world to collapse. All of a sudden, it felt like he was rubbing salt into the gaping wound he had just inflicted on my life. I simply couldn't deal with either of those feelings any more, so I stood up. I just had to get away from him...it simply hurt too much to be next to him right now.
So, I did the only thing I could think of at the time.
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