This is, it turns out, a story about fear and cowardice. Standard disclaimers would apply if there were any actual sex in this but, as it turns out, there isn't. So, if relationship stories freak you out, or you're looking to get your keyboard sticky, now would be a good time to run away. No, really. Probably the best time, thinking about it.
Many thanks to Ashken, Ender, and Kitty, intrepid editors.
* * *
So here I was, sitting in Mrs. Greene's kitchen, drinking tea and feeling uncomfortable. She'd sent a text message to me in the middle of second period asking if I'd come over today, so I had. It'd been a while since I'd been there -- I hadn't really felt comfortable at the house since I'd started dating Dan -- but I didn't figure this was a catch-up session.
"I'm worried about him, Justin," she said. There was only one "him" I figured she could be talking about.
"Yeah, I am, too." I was. Damn me if I didn't actually care for Rob, despite how we started out, all the crap we put each other through, and his tendencies towards multiple personalities. He was a friend, albeit a weird one, and I was finding that having friends meant being in distress when they weren't doing well.
Rob was definitely not doing well. That was clear from just seeing him around school. He looked like hell the few times I'd seen him, all rumpled and looking like a zombie. We were only a few days away from exams, but I wasn't sure he was actually going to make it.
"I don't think it's drugs, but he won't tell me what's going on."
I had a pretty good idea exactly what was going on, but I was hoping I was wrong. "This all started back in April?"
"The whole school year has been one long series of mood swings, but this latest one started then, yes. Why, do you know something that might have happened?" She looked at me, and I winced.
From the first time I met Mrs. Greene I liked her, but I've never, ever been able to lie to her, or slip anything past her. She was the sharpest person I've ever met, and I sometimes wondered what she was doing living here in the back woods of Georgia with a magna cum laude law degree from NYU.
"Okay," I began, really hesitantly. "You know how Rob's been crushing on me this year, right?"
She looked at me with surprise.
"Ah, crap." I just let my head drop to the kitchen table with a thump. She didn't know. There was no way I was getting out of this one.
"From the beginning, Justin," she said, her voice harsh. "What's been going on?"
What could I do? I told her everything, from my first interaction with Rob that first day through to our collaboration on the wall scrolls. She listened quietly, not saying a word through the whole thing.
"That gets us to April," I finished. "And then..." I really didn't want to go on.
"Then what, Justin? What did you do?"
That stung. I didn't do anything, dammit. Getting mad wouldn't get me anywhere, not with her. I couldn't keep the annoyance out of my voice, though.
"Dan Baker asked me out."
She raised an eyebrow at me.
"And Rob knew?"
"Knew?" I snorted. "I came over and gave him an out if he wanted it. Told him if he wanted to ask then it was time or he was out of luck. He passed."
"I know. What was I supposed to do? Someone I kinda liked was asking me out and comfortable enough with it to just be normal about it. Someone vaguely unsettling and desperately uncomfortable with himself wasn't going to ask. What would you do?
"I mean, I knew it was going to hurt Rob. I didn't like that, but he's a big boy and he can make his own decisions. I'm living my life, not his. Dammit, he couldn't even work up the guts to ask me," I said, slamming my hand on the table. "He didn't have any right to expect me to wait for him. Hell, I don't even know if I like him or not."
She smiled at me and gently patted my hand. "You do like him, Justin. You wouldn't feel guilty about it if you didn't."
"Do I? I don't know. I thought that's why people date." If I sounded frustrated it was because I was.
"People date to know each other better, to find out if they can be a couple. That's different. It's important, but different. For all his faults, you like Rob as a friend."
"Yeah, but does he like me? He's obsessed over me, crushed on me, I'm sure he's beat off thinking of me, but does he like me? Okay, you're right, he's my friend. But am I his? Can I be his? Hell, do I want to be his?" I slumped down in my chair, tired from having to deal with it. I think I may have said something I shouldn't have, too, but Mrs. Greene wanted the truth, and I couldn't not say things around her.
"Some times," she said sagely, "it doesn't matter. Friendship is a form of love. You don't always have a choice."
Feh. "Love hurts."
"It does. Sometimes that's how you know."
"Great. One more thing I don't know how to deal with. Life was easier living under a rock." I let out a frustrated breath. "So, what do I do now?"
"Now," she said, "you go talk to Rob."
* * *
Friends. Dammit. Mrs. Greene was right, and that obligated me whether I liked it or not. A friend of mine was hurting, and while I was the last person who should be trying to make it better, I was probably the only one who could.
That left me standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking up. Yeah, it was the middle of the afternoon, and the lights were on, but it still seemed... dark. And foreboding. The dull thumps echoing out from the walls wasn't helping either. I didn't know what sort of music Rob was playing, but it had an awful lot of bass, and didn't sound anywhere near happy. Still, I had something to do, so I walked up the stairs and down the hall.
The music got louder as I got closer to Rob's room. I could hear a good mix of horns in with the thumping bass. Couldn't tell what he was listening to, but it wasn't happy music, that's for sure.
So. I took a sip of water, a deep breath, and knocked on Rob's bedroom door.
I frowned. Not good. I knocked again.
"Just... leave me alone, Mama."
"Rob? It's not your mother. It's Justin."
There was silence. Well, too bad. I tried the door, and it was unlocked, so I went in.
It was late afternoon, but the room was dark and somber, the shades were drawn, and the stereo was rumbling some classical piece, a really good "Wrath of God" symphony. I'm not sure what it was, but it had lots of bass horn and kettle drums. Music for the dumped. I hoped he hadn't been playing this stuff since I'd started dating Dan -- that'd make anyone miserable. Heck, in the few seconds I heard it, the stuff was making me miserable. From what I could see in the darkness, Rob's room was an absolute mess. The place was reasonably big, with a closet and desk on the left wall, a window directly across from the door, and a big bed to the right, with a nightstand next to it. It looked like a hurricane had hit. There were clothes strewn all over, the desk was littered with oversized books, and on top of everything were scattered pages from a sketchbook, covering the debris like paper snow.
Rob was on the bed, wrapped up in a blanket. The bed was covered in sketchbooks and pencils, a small lamp on the nightstand throwing a dim pool of light onto the bed. It didn't so much illuminate as define the deep shadows. Rob looked awful. His hair was a mess, his eyes were red with dark circles under them, he had those nasty looking pillow crease lines along the side of his face, and his clothes looked like he hadn't changed in a couple of days. From the smell, he probably hadn't showered for a while either. I didn't know what the pictures he'd drawn looked like -- I figured I really, really didn't want to know.
"Well, you look like hell," I said. While this was a time for subtlety, I wasn't a person for subtlety. I figured this was a play to your strengths moment. I hoped.
Rob, for his part, just shot me an evil look. "What are you doing here?"
"I just came by..."
Rob didn't give me a chance to finish. "Came by to rub it in? Is that it? Lord it over me?"
"What?" Great. Two sentences in and I'd already lost any shred of control over the conversation.
"You know, you bastard. You know exactly what I'm talking about. You happy, Justin? Got your own little rubber ducky? Fucking swim toy?"
"What, wasn't I good enough for you? How could you, Justin. How could you do that to me? Go out with someone else? What about me, damn you!"
He'd jumped off the bed and was shaking his fist at me. I was tempted to just haul off and belt him, but that wouldn't solve anything, so I did the next best thing -- I dumped the glass of water I was holding over top of his head.
"What the fuck was that for?" he sputtered. The water was running down his face.
"It was either that or lay you out," I observed. While it cooled him down a little he was still looking ready to go on strong. I grabbed him by the front of his shirt and threw him back onto his bed before he could say anything.
"Now you listen to me," I said. I was getting pissed at him and I just let fly. The part of my brain that held the social skills Melanie and Trevor had taken so much time to beat into me protested, but it was a small part, and I ignored it. "I am not your goddamn property. I am not your boyfriend, I am not yours to control, and I do not have to listen to you. Right now you have no say over where I go, what I do, or who I date.
"Someone asked me out, and that someone was not you. You had your chance. You had a lot of chances, and you chose not to. That was your choice. Fine. Don't like it? Too bad, don't yell at me. You made it.
"Was I supposed to ask? Was that the plan? That way it was me making the moves? I get to sweep you off your feet, fulfill your fantasies, and spare you from having to admit you like guys? Was that it? 'Gee, shucks, he seduced me so it's not my fault I pop a boner over him? I'm not really gay!' Bah!" I started pacing around
"I like you, you stupid shit. You're my friend whether you want to be or not. As a friend, I'm telling you -- get your act together. Why the hell would I go out with you? I mean, jesus, Rob, you haven't even told your mother yet. Not that it matters."
He looked at me with terror in his eyes. "You didn't tell her..."
"Tell her? Rob, the first time I was over she asked point blank if you'd asked me out yet. Not if I'd asked you, if you'd asked me."
"Oh, god..." His voice was quiet, then he curled up into a ball and started to cry.
"Ahhh, dammit!" I looked around. I really, really wanted to break something then. A lot. Just my luck there wasn't anything but the walls, and I didn't relish the thought of slamming my fist into plaster covered lathing. Instead I grabbed Rob by the shirt, hauled him to his feet, and dragged him downstairs.
Mrs. Greene was still sitting at the table in the kitchen. She'd been crying quietly, and I'm sure she'd heard at least part of our argument. Hell, the neighbors probably heard it.
I threw Rob, still sobbing, into one of the chairs. "You," I barked. "Talk to your mom. Now."
"Mrs. Greene," I said, turning to her. "It's been a pleasure, as always. Call me later if you want."
And with that, I left. What else could I do?
* * *
Three days later there was no sign of Rob at school. That worried me a lot. We were getting into finals time, and nobody had heard from him -- not Coach Wilson, not Melanie, not any of his football cronies. That kind of left me at a loss, since I knew it was really my fault he wasn't there. I should've gone to his house to see how he was doing, but I was feeling way too guilty and couldn't bring myself to do that. Instead I tried the one teacher I knew that Rob had.
"Um, Mr. B?"
I'd poked my head into the art classroom, and I had gotten lucky -- the teacher I was looking for was there. Unfortunately I didn't remember what his name was, which would've made things a little difficult if I hadn't remembered that everyone called him "Mr. B".
The room was pretty much the same as it was the last time I'd been here, way back in December. The cloth and stool stage setup I'd sat on was gone, but the rest of the mess was there. Easels all over, paints everywhere, and art stuff just scattered. It looked different from the last time I'd been here, but I wasn't sure anything had actually changed.
"Justin! What brings you here?"
"I was wondering if you'd seen Rob around anywhere," I asked. "It's been a few days since I've seen him, and with exams and all I was kind of worried, y'know?"
Something flashed across Mr. B's face, though I wasn't sure what.
"Oh," he said, "you didn't know? There's been a family emergency, and he had to leave. I've been told he won't be back before school's done for the year."
I couldn't imagine what sort of family emergency could pull Rob away so close to the end of the school year that Melanie wouldn't have heard about. That had me more than a little worried.
"Uh," I started, "is he OK? He's not going to fail out or anything, is he?"
"No, there's no worry about that, Justin," Mr. B said. "The school's got policies in place for that sort of thing. His grades are more than good enough to warrant an exemption from finals. He'll be fine."
I don't know why that made me feel better, but it did. Unfortunately, it also meant that if I wanted to know what was going on, I'd have to see if anyone was still at Rob's house. I wasn't looking forward to talking with his mom, but I knew I couldn't not.
* * *
After school, I drove straight over to Rob's house. Mrs. Greene was there, which surprised me. It was early on a weekday for her to be home, and when she answered the door she just looked... old. Tired and old, and very sad.
"Justin," she said, sounding a little surprised. "What brings you here?"
"I heard something had happened to Rob. I thought I'd come over and see if he was OK."
She sighed. "Why don't you come in, Justin?" she said. She led me back to the kitchen. The table in the center was covered with books and papers, and there was a cordless phone sitting on top of the tallest stack. A framed picture of Rob was on the table too. There were fingerprints all over the glass.
"Tea?" Mrs. Greene was at the refrigerator, pulling out a pitcher filled with lemon slices and brown liquid.
"Yeah, thanks," I replied, then downed half the glass she handed me. In the back of my head, I realized I must be nervous -- it was sweetened tea, and I hate sweetened tea. I finished the glass off anyway.
"Um... so where's Rob? Is he around?"
Mrs. Greene gave me an odd, sad look.
"No, he's not here," she said.
"Oh," I said. "Where is he? He's OK?"
She sat down before she said anything. "No, I don't think he's OK, Justin. I hope he will be, though."
That didn't sound at all good. Actually, it sounded really bad.
"Um... he's not hurt or anything, is he?"
"Well, he's..." She stopped and smiled a little. "No, Justin, he's not hurt."
"So that's it, then? He just... left?"
Mrs. Greene sighed. "It's not quite that simple, Justin."
"I dunno, maybe not." I shrugged. "He's not here, though."
"And he's not coming back?"
"Not for a while. He just needs some time."
"Oh." I sat and thought. "So where did he go?"
"He went to visit some friends. He has a lot of issues he needs to work out, and I'm afraid he can't do that here."
"Um... this wasn't my fault, was it?"
Mrs. Greene laughed a little. "No, Justin, this wasn't your fault. If... when it works out, I'll have to thank you for bringing my son back."
"But until then?"
"Until then he needs some time and space, Justin. Be patient. He'll be back."
* * *
"Y'know," I told Trevor, "I think I really fucked up."
"You too, huh?"
We were sitting at a picnic table, enjoying the sun, eating our lunch, and trying to figure out what exactly had gone wrong this year.
"Yeah," I said. "What happened to you?"
"Steph," he said. "It... didn't work out. You?"
I hesitated for a second. I wasn't sure I wanted to talk about this, and I didn't know what exactly to say. Still... Trevor knew. He'd not said a word since that night in Atlanta when I'd kissed Rob, but still, he knew, and I think maybe he'd understand, too.
"Rob. He, um... he ran away."
Trevor looked at me with shock. "From home?"
"No, not exactly..."
Trevor just looked at me for a moment, sizing me up. He must've been putting the pieces together.
"He ran from you, didn't he?"
I sighed. It had taken me nearly two days to figure out what Trevor managed in thirty seconds. I suck sometimes. "Yeah. I think so."
"Any idea why?"
That question hurt because I didn't know why, though I knew it was my fault somehow. I told Trevor everything, from the beginning to the last time I saw Rob, slumped at his kitchen table and crying in front of his mom. The telling hurt, too. I knew I'd done some things I shouldn't have. I told it all to Trevor anyway.
"God," Trevor said when I finished. "I mean, I really hated the guy, but still... nobody deserves that, Justin."
"I just... I don't understand," I wailed. "What did I do?"
"What didn't you do? You played him, Justin. You grabbed him, and teased him, and strung him along, and fucked him over. "
"I didn't mean to."
"Doesn't matter," Trevor said, brushing off my denial. "You did. And I think... maybe you broke his heart too."
That was like a dagger in the chest. I could feel my eyes watering, and I think a tear started down my face. "Aw, fuck." I'd known I'd hurt him. I didn't realize I'd been so... cruel. I really didn't like the feeling, knowing I could do something like that to someone.
"Jesus, Justin, it's not your fault."
I looked up. "Then why does it hurt so much?"
Trevor looked me up and down. He had this sad little smile on his face too. "I think maybe you were in love with him, too."
"What? No! Yes. I don't know!" I threw up my hands and started pacing. "Maybe. Maybe... I was with the person he could've been."
Trevor sighed. "Yeah. He used to be OK, you know. Bobby, I mean. We were even friends, sort of, when we were kids, back before it all really mattered. We did cub scouts together. His daddy took us all camping too, sometimes." Trevor looked a little sad. "He drew me a picture of a squirrel once. I still have it."
Hearing that made it all that much worse.
"So what do I do?"
"Do?" Trevor laughed, though I didn't think he was amused. "There's nothing you can do. It's all done, Justin. And if he's left..." Trevor shrugged. "Can't even make it up to him."
"This is all my fault," I said. It was, I knew it. "Because I didn't know. I should've known."
"Justin," he said, "I don't think you're responsible. It's not like you're any good understanding people. Bobby started it. It was a fight, and you fought to win. You just... didn't know. I don't think he did either."
"That doesn't make me feel any better," I said.
"Maybe not," Trevor replied. "Maybe it shouldn't. I don't know. I mean, yeah, you really fucked up. So did Bobby. That's life, I guess. At least he can come back. That's something. You didn't ruin his life. You could have, you know," he said. "That kiss made it really clear."
I'd thought about that some. "You guys are my friends. I knew you wouldn't say anything."
"He didn't know that, though. We could've made his life hell, Justin. Got him hurt, maybe even got him killed, you know?"
I shivered. I hadn't considered that. Around here people were a lot less tolerant of people who were different, or at least it seemed that way to me. Maybe it was because I was really different, maybe it just seemed that way because I grew up someplace at least a little more forgiving. Maybe people just suck. The thought that I could've gotten Rob hurt just by kissing him wasn't one I liked.
"Do you have any idea what it's like to be gay, Justin?"
That question brought me back to reality, and made me boggle.
"Um, hello? Guy who likes dick here? That's about as gay as it gets."
"No, it..." Trevor let out an exasperated sigh. He stood up with his legs spread, put one hand on his waist and cocked his hips. "Honey, do you have any idea what iths like being tho faaaabulous?" Trevor had put on the thickest, over the top lisp I'd ever heard, and the hand he was waving around looked like he had no bones below his elbow.
"Jeez, Trevor," I said, annoyed, "you know better than that. That's not gay, it's just..." I searched around for a word. "Faggy."
"No, Justin," he replied, dropping the lisp and sounding normal again, "around here, that is gay. You," he said, pointing at me, "just like guys."
"So does he," I replied. I knew Trevor was getting at something, but I didn't know what. "So what? I mean, all that crap, it doesn't mean anything."
"But it does, Justin," Trevor said. "That's what you were asking him to be."
"No I wasn't!" I was feeling defensive, and I know it must've been clear in my voice. "He was fine the way he was."
"You don't get it," Trevor said, sounding profoundly frustrated. He looked like he was about ready to start pounding the table with his fists. "Look, Justin, around here I am gay."
"But you aren't! And he didn't have to be like anyone but him. I liked him as him."
"I am. It doesn't matter if I like girls. Where we live, being gay means acting like me, or worse. It doesn't matter what you have to be. It's what you think you have to be, and what everyone expects you to be. Don't you get it? It's all a big play. He fell in love with you, Justin, and then you made him want you so bad he couldn't stand it. Then in the third act you told him that he had give up the Football Player part and take on the Fag part if he wanted to keep you."
It had taken me forever, but I think I finally got it. "But I didn't... that's not... it isn't fair," I said, finally understanding.
"No shit," Trevor said.
"I didn't ask for that. I..." Trevor put his hand over my mouth to shut me up.
"It doesn't matter what you asked, or who he could be. What matters is what he thought you asked and what he thought he could be. I think he thought you asked him to be something he couldn't. So he ran. What else could he do?"
That was the sad part. There was so much else he could've done, but instead he ran. And I didn't have the sense to see it, or do anything about it, until it was too late.
God, it hurt.
* * *
Well, it's been quite a while, but we're finally done. Sorry it didn't turn out quite the way everyone might've wanted, but life's like that sometimes, both real life and fake life.
A big thanks to Kitty, who stayed with Justin and friends through thick and thin (and hurricanes, and moves). Thanks too to all the kind folks who've followed Justin along and written to say how they felt about the story. I appreciate that, even if I've not been nearly as good with my correspondence as I ought to be.
And yes, before anyone asks, there will be a sequel.
* * *
Comments, critiques, criticism, and crazy rantings can all go to email@example.com.
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