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.
* * *
"Justin, could you be a dear? I've got homework for someone who's been out the past week that I need to drop off, but I'm tied up with Student Council business. Could you take it over for me?" Melanie had cornered me after class, put on her thickest southern charm and batted her eyes at me. She knew it wouldn't get her anywhere, but she did it anyway, to our mutual amusement. She'd been flirting like this with me ever since we had our talk. It was fun, and it was casual, and if I screwed up it didn't much matter. I kind of liked it.
"Yeah, sure, no problem. Got an address?"
"Thanks, you're a life saver!" She handed me a bag with books and a page with directions and a map. I got a vague feeling I'd just been had, but it's not like I had anything else to do this afternoon besides practice.
The drive out was uneventful enough. The place I was going to turned out to be an old two story farmhouse with a huge front yard, lots of gardens, and a vast expanse of trees behind it. The driveway was gravel and must've been a quarter mile long, and the whole place looked like something that should've been on a postcard. Still, it was the right place; the house number and name -- Greene -- matched what was on my map.
When I knocked at the door, a distinguished older woman answered. "Afternoon," I said. "Melanie Griswold asked me to drop these off."
"Oh, you must be Justin. Melanie said you'd be stopping by this afternoon with Rob's homework. Won't you come in?"
The request felt a little odd -- I mean, I was just dropping off a bag of books and school assignments. Southern hospitality, I guess. Pity nobody at school had any.
"Sure," I replied, and I followed her into the house. The place was large and tastefully furnished. It had that old, well-worn, lived in feel to it. Most of the things were probably old enough to be antiques, but the place didn't feel like a museum. It was ... homey.
"I do appreciate you bringing these by. Rob's missed school this week, and I'd hate for him to fall behind." There was something odd about her accent that was nagging at me.
"It's not a problem, Mrs. Greene. I hope he's feeling better soon." Okay, sure, they were empty, polite words, but I'd been sort of practicing being polite lately. I had no idea who Rob Greene was.
"I'm afraid it's not him, Justin." She sighed. "It's his dog. She's old, and quite ill. I'm afraid she's not long for this world." The sadness was evident in her voice. I felt a twinge of jealousy. My parents never cared that much about my dog. I'm not sure they ever cared at all for my dog.
I followed her back to the kitchen and dropped the books onto the table. Unlike the rest of the house, the kitchen was modern -- stainless steel appliances, stone countertops, and dark wood cabinets. Someone'd spent a lot of cash on it, but it looked well-used. In use now, actually, as there were bowls and ingredients spread over one of the counters.
"I was just starting to fix supper," said Mrs. Greene. "I'm not sure when Rob will be back, though. You can never tell with vets. Still, they're better than doctors." She started working as she spoke, doing something with chicken. "Rob's told me quite a bit about you," she said.
"Really?" This was a little weird. Someone I didn't know was talking about me to their mom. I couldn't think of much beyond the fights that anyone I didn't know would know to talk about. "What did he say about me?" My tone was guarded.
"Oh, you do confuse him," she said, her voice light. "I'm afraid he doesn't quite know what to do with you."
"He could say something," I said. "I'm pretty straightforward."
"I can tell, dear," she said with a smile in her voice. "But Rob's in high school. He doesn't know how to deal with straightforward any more, I think. Certainly not your sort of straightforward."
Right. Now I was definitely getting weirded out. Not to the point of looking for a quick exit, but this conversation was heading deep into the Twilight Zone. Time for a quick change of subject, then.
"So, what are you fixing for dinner?"
"A nice chicken marsala with pasta and corn bread. It isn't traditional," she said with a chuckle, "but it's comfort food. Would you like to stay? I think Rob would appreciate your company."
"I'm not sure," I said. I was hedging, since I still had no idea who Rob was. I didn't want to sound rude since, weird or not, I did like his mom, but I didn't want to commit to anything. "Maybe we should wait and see how things go. He might not want company."
"I understand," she said. That made one of us.
I looked around the kitchen, trying to find some sign of Rob, something that'd help me identify who the heck he was. On the far wall of the room, on either side of a door that led into a living room, were a pair of picture frames. I got up and wandered over to look at them.
The one on the left was one of those traditional family pictures. A younger Mrs. Greene, a boy who must've been around eight, and a man who looked to be the boy's father were standing together in someone's yard. At the boy's feet was a perk-eared Border Collie puppy, its fur a mix of black and white splotches.
The picture on the right was a charcoal drawing of a dog. The markings matched the puppy in the other picture, but this dog was obviously much older. She was happy, you could tell, but her face showed her age, and whoever did the picture captured the fatigue in her eyes and grey in her muzzle well. It was obviously done with a lot of care.
"Is this Rob's dog?" I asked.
"Yes, that's Kismet. Rob did that picture this summer. He does love that dog so."
"He's quite good," I said. He was, too. The picture was better than I'd expect from someone in high school.
I moved over to look at the family picture on the left, trying to get an idea of who Rob was. Unfortunately, it's tough to go from eight to sixteen or seventeen, and I just couldn't place him, though both he and his dad looked vaguely familiar. "Nice picture," I said. A good, noncommittal thing to say. I was proud of myself for managing that much.
"We took that the day Rob's dad got him Kismet." There was something a little sad in her voice. "It was the last picture we have of him. He died two days later." She gave a sigh, one I could hear across the kitchen. "Richard was a wonderful man. Rob took after him in so many ways."
"I'm sorry," I said. I didn't know what else to say, though I was pretty sure that wasn't the right thing. Is there even a right thing to say? I dunno.
"Don't fret about it, dear," she said. "It's been nine years, and we had fifteen wonderful years together before that. No regrets."
I moved back to the table and sat down. Weird or not, the kitchen and the company were comfortable. So, thinking about it, were the kitchen chairs.
"If you'd like something to drink, feel free to help yourself," said Mrs. Greene. "I'm afraid my hands are a bit messy at the moment."
"A glass of water would be nice."
"There are glasses in the end cabinet," she said, and there were. I grabbed one and filled it from the water dispenser in the door of the refrigerator.
"So, dear," said Mrs. Greene a few moments later, "has Rob asked you out yet?" She said this in a plain, matter-of-fact voice, no different than the one she used when she asked me if I was staying for dinner. I, on the other hand, managed to spew out a full mouthful of water through my nose and started coughing.
"I'll take that as a no," she said, with a self-satisfied grin and a twinkle in her eye.
"No, so far nobody's asked me out," I said once I could speak again. From the look on her face, I could tell she'd done that on purpose. "You have good timing," I accused her.
"I'm a lawyer, dear. It's a useful skill. Paper towels are next to the sink."
"Thanks, I think." That did it. I decided that whoever Rob was, I liked his mother. A lot.
"Rob's told you I'm gay, then?"
She sighed a little. "No, he hasn't yet. I'm not sure he knows." I cocked an eyebrow at her. "Melanie told me," she explained.
That made sense. I'd told Rick, and Rick was dating Melanie, so she knew pretty much everything he did. I don't remember him ever coming straight out and saying it, but it was clear that she knew. Come to think of it, she seemed to know just about everything that was going on at school.
"So if Rob doesn't know, why did you think he'd ask me out?"
Her reply was interrupted by the phone. I pointedly ignored her as she spoke, and after a moment she hung up. "Dear, that was the office. I'm afraid I need to work for a bit. Would you mind staying? It's nice to have the company."
"Sure," I said. "Would you like me to make the corn bread?" I asked.
"Oh, would you, dear? That would be nice."
"I'd be happy to," I said. She gave me a smile and went off to another room.
While Mrs. Greene was off in her study, I rummaged through the cabinets looking for the ingredients, pans, and bowls I needed. It was a sad fact that I couldn't cook that well, but I could bake just fine. Cooking's all about feel, taste, and adjusting to your ingredients and, well, I wasn't any good at that--things I cooked tended to come out flat, or over-spiced. Baking, though, is all about following directions. That I could do just fine, and I had my grandmother's cornbread recipe memorized.
It only took a few minutes to get things mixed together, and I popped the pan of batter into the oven to bake. Mrs. Greene hadn't returned, so I cleaned up after myself. Then, bored, I started a loaf of bread.
"I'm sorry that took so long," came a voice from behind me, as I was finishing kneading the dough. "Busybody judges." As if that explained everything. I suppose it would have, if I knew what she was talking about.
She noticed what I was doing. "Bread?"
"Challah. I got bored," I said with a grin. I shouldn't have, since it takes three hours before it's finished, but I was enjoying the company, and I didn't have anything at home waiting for me.
The timer went off while I was finishing up, so I wiped my hands off and pulled the corn bread out of the oven.
"You made a cake, too," she said, looking at the pan as I put it on the cooling rack. "How sweet."
"What? No, this is the corn bread."
"Dear," she said, "you make corn bread in a cast iron pan. And real corn bread isn't fluffy." She said it with a smile, and I could tell she was joking with me. Corn bread, it turns out, is a big cultural thing. Where I come from it's light, fluffy, and kind of sweet, and it sort of is like a cake. Down here it isn't sweet at all, and isn't fluffy either.
If she was going to joke, I could too. Besides, she'd made me spew water out of my nose, the first adult could remember that would do that. "Yes," I said with some indignation, "it is. Those corn bricks you have down here are nothing like real corn bread!"
"My," she said, "I forgot you were a Yankee." She had a grin that turned what would have been an insult into a gentle gibe.
"I think I'm being insulted. Perhaps you shouldn't have any," I said it with a huff, but I was cutting a piece anyway and handing it to her. Two could play this game, though I'll admit that not too long ago, one of them would not have been me.
Mrs. Greene took a bite of the proffered piece, closing her eyes as she savored it.
"Honey butter?" I offered the bowl of it to her, trying to sound as innocent as I could.
"I haven't had this in years," she said with a happy sigh. "Stephen used to make it like this."
"Stephen?" Yeah, OK, I was prying, and I wasn't subtle, but I was curious. I figured an old boyfriend or something.
"We shared an apartment when I was in law school. Stephen used to cook for us. That man certainly could cook."
"So, how'd you meet?"
"Oh, it was serendipity. I had been accepted to NYU law school, and my family thought I would do well to have an apartment off-campus. Stephen was a sophomore and had inherited the apartment from his roommate the previous year. I saw the advertisement he'd put up on campus, and we got along quite well. He always was amused that his roommate was a proper southern girl."
That sort of surprised me. I didn't figure that many girls' parents would be comfortable with their daughter sharing an apartment with a guy. "And your parents didn't mind?"
"Dear, NYU's in Greenwich Village, and Stephen's apartment was in the middle of it." That probably should've meant something, but it didn't. I just gave her a blank look. She chuckled. "Justin, Stephen was gay. I had nothing to worry about from him or any of his dates.
"Especially," she added, "since I was the one who usually set him up on them."
At this point, I was completely blown away. Here I was, deep in the middle of rural Georgia, as far as I was concerned total hick country, talking with a woman who went to school in Manhattan and used to set her gay roommate up on dates. Heck, she was almost trying to set her gay kid up on a date. I took a quick look around to see if things were fading to black and white, just in case.
"I think I have a picture of him somewhere," she said. She disappeared into the living room for a moment, then returned with a small framed picture. There were four people in it. A much younger Mrs. Greene and a younger version of the man in the other picture were together, obviously as a couple. Next to them were two men, arms around each other. The four were grinning at the camera.
"That's Stephen and his husband, Robert." The affection in her voice was clear, though tinged with some sadness. "Robert was Richard's roommate in school. They were a lovely couple. Stephen was my best friend, and Rob's godfather. Robert was Richard's best friend. We named Rob after him."
"What happened?" It was pretty clear something had. People don't get sad for no reason.
"Life, I'm afraid," she said.
"No, nothing like that. After Richard died, we started drifting apart. And then ... well, I've not spoken to either of them in years, ever since ..." She just trailed off. I could see the tears in her eyes.
"Some things that are said can't be unsaid, or forgotten, Justin. One more thing I owe The Bastard for." She said 'The Bastard' like it was a name or label, not a curse.
"Well, maybe," I replied. I had a lot of experience saying the wrong things -- it was something I was really good at, before I stopped saying much of anything to anyone. "But they can be forgiven. Better now than later. You can't say sorry to a dead man."
She had a sad smile on her face as she looked at me. "It isn't that easy, Justin."
"May not be that easy. It is that simple," I said with a shrug. "Call. What's the worst thing that happens? Rick's always telling me best friends always get a second chance." That was a little lie, but after what had happened between Rick and me, I knew I'd always give him a second chance, and I couldn't imagine him not doing the same for me.
I have to admit, I didn't know where the words were coming from. I almost hoped they wouldn't stop, though I knew it wouldn't last. Still... I was comfortable here, talking with Mrs. Greene, comfortable in a way I'd never been with anyone else, not even Rick. Being comfortable made it easier somehow. It was nice.
"Perhaps I will," she said with a smile. The sad was gone. Mostly, at least.
The timer I'd set went off at that point, breaking an otherwise awkward moment. I got up and punched down the bread, which by this point had risen nicely and was ready for braiding. That gave me something to do with my hands but left my brain free. That used to not be a problem for me, when I was alone all the time, but the past month or so it's been tough -- turns out I like people, even if usually I didn't know what to do around them. Who'd've thought?
Getting the conversation going again seemed like a good idea, to take her mind off whatever had caused the problem with her friends. Unfortunately getting conversations going wasn't my strong point, which left me with only, "So, tell me about Rob. What's he like?"
Mrs. Greene looked at me oddly. "You say that like you don't know him," she said.
"Uh..." I walked into that one. I could try faking it, but I knew that wouldn't work. Mrs. Greene was really sharp, and I... well, I wasn't. Time to 'fess up. "Honestly, I don't know anyone named Rob Greene. I came over because Melanie asked me to, and had a map and directions. I have no idea who lives here. I'm sorry. You seemed to know who I was, and the company was nice..."
She chuckled. "I understand, dear. I think you worry too much. I kept my maiden name when I got married. Rob's last name is Phillips."
Now that name rang a bell. A big one. "Wait. Rob... Phillips? Bobby Phillips?" She nodded. "Quarterback, junior class salutatorian, major asshole?" Ah, damn, that last just slipped out.
She winced a little. "I'm afraid so."
"Wow," I mused. "What happened to him? You're so nice, and he ... isn't."
"He's had a very hard time these past few years. With his father's death, then The Bastard, starting high school ... then he fell in with that Barker boy." She shook her head.
"Rick? Rick's a nice guy," I protested, defending my friend.
"Little Ricky? No, his brother. Dale."
"Oh. Dale," I said, making it really clear how I felt about him.
"You've met him?"
"Once," I said. "I promised to neuter him if he didn't keep his mouth shut." She chuckled at that. "He has, so far. Pity, really."
"He was the quarterback of the football team when Rob started high school. Rob idolized him, and I'm afraid I was too busy picking up after the mess The Bastard left to pay enough attention to Rob. They spent a lot of time together. "
I'd finished braiding up the two loaves of challah, leaving them on a pair of cookie sheets for a second rise. I washed up, turned the oven on to preheat, and sat back down at the table with a glass of water.
"Bad crowd, huh?"
"Not as bad as some, but still ... the sweet little boy I knew had changed. All children grow up, whether we like it or not, Justin. Something you should remember for your own one day."
Yeah, like that was ever going to happen. I wasn't picturing myself ever getting pregnant. I gave a little snort, but she shot me a hard look. "Just because it's more difficult doesn't mean it's impossible. If you want children, you can have them. You should have them. Children should be wanted, Justin, and if you have a child, it's because you wanted one very badly. That's a precious gift to give a child."
"Um... well, I guess. I'd sort of figured it wasn't going to happen. Maybe I was wrong there."
Mrs. Greene got up and put a tea kettle on the stove. Fiddling with it seemed to give her some time to collect her thoughts. Gave me some time too.
"Bobby used to not be an ass?"
She sighed. "Never trust a man who's never unsure of himself. They only lead to trouble." Yes, things had gotten this bizarre -- I was getting tips on dating guys from the mother of my own personal antagonist. I'd pretty much given up on trying to figure out what was going on and was just letting things go wherever they were going to. Didn't know where that was, but I was figuring it was going to be pretty surreal, and the apparent non sequitur just sort of fit.
"Rob and his father were so close. Richard always encouraged Rob to do what he wanted. They'd fish and hike, and Rob would always be drawing pictures of the things they saw. If they weren't out, Rob would be on the back porch with his pad and pencil.
"After Richard died, Rob was devastated, and I'm afraid I didn't manage much better. I spent more time at work than I should have, and I didn't pay nearly enough attention to Rob. And then there was ... The Bastard." She sighed.
"He was a suave, elegant, sweet-talking man. We met at a party one of the other firms was holding, and he swept me off my feet. He wooed me so very well, and we married six months later. I wanted someone, and I thought Rob needed a father. I was so very wrong."
There was pain in her eyes from the memories. I didn't know why she was telling me this, but it sort of sounded like something she needed to say, so I was quiet and just listened. "I thought he'd be a good husband, a good father. I thought... well, I don't know what I thought, really. I needed someone, and The Bastard seemed like he was that someone. He wasn't.
"He had me fooled, and I didn't realize how bad things were until the very end. I'd already lost Stephen and Robert, but it wasn't until I'd lost Rob that I finally realized how bad things had gotten."
She was crying a little by this point. I really, really had no idea why she was telling me this stuff, not if it was bothering her so much. But... she was. It was weird to feel this trusted, for no reason that I knew. But she did trust me, I figured -- she'd have to if she was talking about it. If it was important to say it was probably important to say as much as she could, so I prodded.
"How bad was that?"
She took a paper towel off the roll on the counter and wiped her eyes.
"I'd already lost Stephen and Robert. We had drifted apart some in the year after Richard died, as people do when they live so far apart. After I remarried, The Bastard had said some things that shouldn't ever be said, and when they pushed I sided with him. Rob, too, he said some truly horrible things to them, and I think... well, we've not spoken to each other in years.
"One day court had let out early because of a bomb scare, and I had nothing else I really needed to do at the office, so I came home. I found... I found them in the living room. The Bastard had some drawings that Rob had done of some of the boys on the football team. They were innocent pictures, but he was furious, incensed that a son of his, even one by marriage might be doing something people would consider gay. I should've seen before, but I didn't realize he was so bad. He'd always been so polite at parties and meetings. He always wanted things that would advance his career. Things like Rob and me." The bitterness in her voice was strong. I didn't know if it was from this guy's deceit or from her so badly misjudging him..
"Rob didn't know I'd seen, I never told him. The Bastard, though... he knew though he never told me how often he'd yelled at Rob. He told me it was just that once, but from the changes in Rob I knew he was lying. Rob would never say. The Bastard treated him so badly, but still, Rob had bonded with him, thought of him as how a man should be. There are too many around here like him." She shook her head in sorrow.
"And high school -- he'd already started with football, gotten in with Dale and his ilk. By the time The Bastard was gone things had already gone too far."
Mrs. Greene sighed and sat down, almost looking like she was deflating as she did. It was sad to see how much she felt she'd lost. I had no clue what to do, but it felt like I ought to do something. I settled for awkwardly patting her shoulder, but I knew it wasn't really enough.
The phone interrupted us. Mrs. Greene answered it, and I could see her face fall as she listened. I tidied up the dishes in the kitchen as she stood there, trying not to look like I was listening. Not that there was much to hear. The conversation was short, and when she was done, she was crying.
"Kismet has to be put to sleep," she said. I winced. "There's nothing they can do. She's too old, and too weak, and is in too much pain. It's the merciful thing to do."
I sighed. I knew the pain. "That doesn't make it any easier."
"No," she said, "It doesn't. Rob will be home to bury her after he says goodbye one last time."
There are only a few things you can possibly say to that. "Where will he want to bury her?" and "Where is a shovel?" are two. I asked them both.
* * *
The grave was three foot deep, four long, and two wide. Cramped, but I was in it anyway, making it deeper. I was facing away from the house, but I heard Bobby come up, words too soft to hear preceding him. I stopped and looked over my shoulder. He had something cradled in his arms, and was talking to it as he walked. I could see the streaks of his tears on his face. I don't think he knew I was there, so I started digging again. The sounds of the shovel hitting dirt and rock brought him up short. He looked at me, but the eyes staring at me weren't the eyes of the Bobby I knew from school. These were sad, and haunted, and very alone. He said nothing for a few minutes, the sounds of the shovel digging into the earth and the dirt hitting the pile the only noise.
"How'd you know?" he asked, as I continued to dig.
"Your mom told me this was Kismet's favorite spot."
He was silent for a while. I kept digging. "Why?"
I stopped for a moment, lost in thought. I was facing away from him, so he couldn't see the struggle to keep the emotions from running across my face.
"I had a dog," I said, quietly. "Kenna. She was a German Shepherd, and my best friend since I was eight. She was always there, watching out for me when my parents were at work and couldn't go play, and she kept the bullies at bay when I went to the park to practice. She never judged, never complained, and was always there when I needed her. Always, even... especially when my parents weren't. Some days she was more my mother than my mom was."
I turned to look at Bobby. He was kneeling next to the grave I was digging, holding on to his dog, watching me. His face was wet with tears, and right then I almost felt sorry for him. "I spent last year as an exchange student," I said. I had to stop again and breathe some, before I started bawling. Gods, it hurt to talk about. "Three days after I got back, Kenna was hit by a car. One of the neighbor's little kids had run out into the road. She took off and slammed the kid out of the path of a car. The kid was fine, but her hind end was crushed. There was nothing we could do. Another neighbor was a State Cop. He saw what state she was in, and put her out of her misery." I looked at Bobby. I knew the tears were streaming down my face, but I couldn't stop them. "He shot her in the head while held her. It was quick and painless, for her at least.
"Three weeks later, we moved here--a surprise to me, though my parents knew for a few months before we did it. They just never told me. I didn't even get to bury her at home. No point, my folks said, since we were just going to move. She got shipped off to the local vet clinic for 'disposal'."
I'd finished the hole and got out. It was probably bigger than it needed to be, really, but I knew what Kenna meant to me, and what Kismet had to mean to Bobby. She deserved that much at least, at the end.
Bobby was crying openly as he lowered Kismet's body into the hole. His mom had given me a few of her favorite toys and a charcoal sketch of her that Bobby had done, and I put them into the grave and started filling it back up. Bobby just knelt at the graveside and sobbed as I worked. I had to admit, I was crying too.
When I was done we stood for a moment in silence. I knelt myself then, dug a shallow hole at the top of the grave, and planted a mum I'd grabbed from the back porch. Kismet, she'd said, always dug them up whenever she planted them in her garden. It seemed appropriate somehow.
Bobby had sat at some point while I was working. He had his knees drawn up to his chest and was hugging them as he cried. Then I did feel sorry for him. No matter what he'd done to me, no matter how much I didn't like him, he didn't deserve this, didn't deserve the pain. I sat next to him and put my hand on his shoulder, trying to give him at least a little comfort. I'm sure he wouldn't have wanted me to see this, but I did, and I knew I couldn't go on any more with my plan.
"I'm done with it, you know," I said softly to Bobby. "The revenge. It's over."
He looked at me, puzzled. The tears had left tracks through the dirt on his face. "What? Why..." His voice was ragged.
"Because... I..." I stopped, not knowing how to explain. I swore silently at myself, at the words I needed but just didn't have. I couldn't explain, but maybe I could tell, and maybe he'd understand.
"Last year. I was an exchange student. Tokyo. I'd dreamed about it since I was ten. I never fit in at home, and I hoped... I knew I could there. I studied and practiced, Japanese, my martial arts, and guitar so I'd have something to show off. I wanted so badly to fit in. I figured I was ready. New start, nice place, everything ordered, everyone polite, and I knew the score--it'd be great. Hah." I couldn't keep the bitterness out of my voice. The scabs on these wounds were still fresh.
"It was hell. The family I was staying with had one kid, and he was so obsessed with toy planes it was scary. I think he bathed maybe once a week, and he always had this nasty smell." Remembering that turned my stomach a little. I'd had to share a room with him for two weeks before I convinced him that I was a little clumsy and might break something,.Not that the room next door to his was all that much better. At least it had a window I could open, and it was open pretty much all the time.
"His parents doted on him -- he was their only child, their only chance to continue their family into the future. I think they're doomed, unless you can get a plastic jet fighter pregnant. I was there in some attempt to get him to connect to the real world, or out of some sort of misplaced national pride. I never did figure out which, and you can't ask that sort of question.
"At school I was treated like a thing from a freak show, there to stare and poke at. 'Look, isn't that cute, he can almost talk like a real person!' You think school's bad here? Over there it was like being in a never ending play, where everyone had their parts memorized since the day they were born, and I was stumbling around center stage, not knowing what the fuck was going on, with the spotlight always on me. I suck at social things at the best of times. Those weren't the best of times. It didn't help that I started picking up accents and speech styles without realizing it. Japanese is one of those languages where men, women, boys, and girls all talk differently, and talk differently to each other. Get one thing wrong and people laugh at you forever, or think you're gay." I snorted. "Three guesses which one I did." I shook my head at the memory. One wrong word was all it took. All it ever took, I guess.
"It's not that I mind people thinking I'm gay. I mean, I am, and that's fine." Bobby turned and looked at me like I was mad. "It's not a secret or anything," I said, shrugging. "Though I don't go making a big deal about it. You knew. At least there I got cut a break, being foreign. Made me more of a curiosity, instead of a target. One more reason for me to join the freak show. I would've preferred people to know because I actually said so, not because I used the wrong damn pronoun.
"This physical mimicry thing of mine made it worse, on top of the accents--I tried going out for Kendo since I didn't know anything about it. Figured doing something new'd help me fit in, something I could suck at and maybe learn from other people, just be one of the new guys. Between the mimic and the other arts I knew, I was beating the club head within six months of me starting. If I had a clue, I'd have known to let him win. I figured that one out three seconds too late.
"So, there I was, half way around the world, dancing on eggshells, on constant display, and in social shit so deep I couldn't see the sun. Good times." This all just spilled out, bitter words heaped upon each other. I'd never talked to anyone about this. Not my host family, not my parents, not even Kenna. It still hurt so badly. Guess it never stopped hurting, I had just pushed it aside and didn't deal with it.
"Next door to my host family was an old Dojo, and the sensei let me practice, which helped some. I could at least work until I near fell over. It's not forgetting, but it was good enough some days. I'd get home from school, and if there weren't any classes running, I went for four or five hours, sometimes more." Sometimes. Hah. And sometimes I'd work until I passed out, then get up and do more. Anything to avoid school, my host family, and other people to avoid being on display in the freak show. "The only thing that kept me going some days was Kenna. I kept a picture of her in my bag, and I'd call home and talk to her when things got too bad. Mom thought I was nuts, but they paid the phone bill and never complained.
"Then coming here..." I stopped and rubbed my head. I needed to talk, and I knew I could tell this to Bobby, but it still made my head hurt. "Coming here was like stepping into the Twilight Zone, y'know. At least in Tokyo things were supposed to be different, and they were. I didn't expect it to be bad, but I did expect it to be different. Here, it was like I was someplace I knew, except that everything was six inches off center and all the rules I knew were almost the right ones. Moving ... I didn't want it, I didn't expect it, there wasn't anyone I could talk to about it. And then there was you."
Bobby had turned away from me, his head hanging low. It looked like he might be crying again, I couldn't quite tell. I probably should have stopped, but I couldn't.
"I knew what you were doing," I told him. "I never did know why, but it was obvious from the first time you saw me that you hated me. I saw the glares, heard the comments--you weren't subtle, not even close. Your friends knew it, too, and they always went out of their way to 'welcome' me. You took a good shot at making my life here hell, and you almost managed it." Bobby drew himself in even tighter as I said that, like he was trying to get away from the hand I still had on his shoulder. I didn't take it away. Maybe I should have.
"You pushed a little too hard, though," I said. "Or maybe hard enough, I dunno. I was tired of the crap, and I just wanted it to stop. That was the first time I ever really stood up for myself. The first time I acted. I ought to thank you for it. I've friends here now. I've never had that before. It's ... nice.
"Don't think I didn't see the reaction you had when we fought. I've been trained to pay attention in a fight, but when I let you grab my top you froze and stared. I pegged you for some screwed-up closet case, using me to keep up your reputation and taking out your self-loathing or whatever on me. I didn't care. I suppose I still don't, really. I just wanted to be left alone, but you wouldn't let me be.
"Last year sucked so bad, but it did teach me how to put on a mask and play a part. And I played it up big. Kicked everyone's ideas about me on their head, then played you like a violin. I knew what I did to you, and I went out of my way to do it big. I dressed the part, played the part, flirted like hell at you, and made you squirm. Nobody knew but me, but that was enough. I even got you to cream your pants once, didn't I?" I looked at him and saw him looking back. He nodded, not meeting my gaze. "It was the thing with the pickle." The crimson of his cheeks was answer enough to that.
"It's done, though. She," I said, nodding at the grave, "deserves better, even if you don't." As I said that I realized it was a lie. I shouldn't have said it, but I did. When I did, Bobby just collapsed and bawled.
No matter what he'd done, he didn't deserve what I was doing to him, and I couldn't do it any more. I just didn't understand until now, understand how badly one person could hurt another. That's what I had been trying to do, to hurt Bobby. Maybe the pain he was feeling now wasn't from something I'd done, but I'd tried, and tried hard. I didn't like Bobby, and I didn't understand him, but I didn't want to be like him either. I wouldn't be like him.
I pulled Bobby over and held him, head in my lap, petting his head like I would've Kenna's as he cried himself until his tears ran dry, then sobbed himself to sleep. The sun was setting and a chill settled over us, so I picked him up and carried him to the house.
Mrs. Greene opened the back door for me without saying anything. She'd said earlier that Bobby's bedroom was on the second floor, so I carried him up the stairs and looked around. There weren't too many choices, and the room with the football posters, scattered pencils, and sketches of Kismet was pretty clearly Bobby's. The bed wasn't made, which made things easier for me. I settled him onto the bed, took off his shoes, and tucked him in. On the dresser was a stuffed dog, and on a whim I took it and wrapped Bobbt's arms around it. Who knows, maybe he'd sleep better for it.
I suppose I could've taken the time to look around, but it just didn't seem right. For all that Bobby and I had done to each other, we'd come to a sort of understanding, and poking through his room would've felt like violating him somehow. He'd had a hard enough day as it was, he didn't need that too. I just turned out the light, slipped out, and quietly shut the door.
Mrs. Greene was waiting for me in the kitchen, tears in her eyes. There was a glass of orange juice, a ham sandwich, and some brownies on a plate at the table. I washed up without saying a word, then sat down and devoured what she'd made me. Talking with Bobby'd taken a lot more out of me than I'd expected, and I was starving and exhausted.
"He could really use a friend," she said, as I got up to leave.
I thought about that, thought about what she'd told me earlier, and what I'd seen outside when we buried Kenna. He probably could use one, but it couldn't be me. "Rob," I said, gesturing around at the pictures in the living room, "looks like someone I would very much like to be friends with. I've only met Bobby, though, and he's not worth the time of day."
Mrs. Greene looked sad at that, but said nothing.
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