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.
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It was Saturday, and I'd cut my normal morning run short because Melanie had told me she had an outing in mind for us. It was about nine thirty when she rolled in, and I was still a little wet from the shower.
"C'mon," she said, dragging me out to her car, "time for our field trip." Melanie was nothing if not persistent.
"What, won't Rick be jealous?" I teased as I grabbed a jacket from the pegs in the front hallway. "I mean, really, being seen alone with me!"
"Why Justin Payne, I do declare, you've found yourself a sense of humor!" The southern belle was thick in her voice, and a grin was spread across her face.
"Can't be a loser forever," I shot back.
She stopped, and gave me a serious look. "Yes, you could. I'm glad you decided not to." The moment passed, and the impish look was back. "Now, into the car with you! We have places to go and things to see!"
I climbed into the passenger seat. "So, where are we going? Or is it a secret?"
"We are going," she declared, "to Atlanta."
"Swell. What are we going to see?"
"Ah, but that would spoil the surprise!" And she wouldn't say another word about it.
The drive was interesting. This was only the second time I'd been away from the town I'd moved to since I got here, and I hadn't paid much attention on that first drive. The countryside was pretty, and even in the late fall, the trees still had leaves, though they had changed colors. The reds and yellows were quite a contrast with back home, where the leaves were already down and the trees were brown and bare for the coming winter.
Melanie chatted as we drove, and I tried hard to keep up with the conversation just so I could, but it was tough. After about half an hour of trying she called me on it.
"You're not very good at this, are you Justin?"
"Good at what, Melanie?" I had a pretty good idea what she was talking about, but I thought I'd ask anyway.
"The gentle art of conversation."
"No," I said with a chuckle, "that's one thing I never did get the hang of."
"It's not that difficult if you try," she chided.
"It is for me," I replied with a sigh. She shot me a look. "No, really, it is."
"Justin, anyone can learn how to have a conversation."
Yeah, right. I wish.
"I'm not just anyone," I groused. She looked amused, but unimpressed. "No. Really." Right then I realized that I trusted Melanie. I mean, I really trusted her. That was a strange feeling, and one I wasn't entirely comfortable with, because it was so unfamiliar.
I took a deep breath. "Listen," I started, "there's something about me..."
Melanie cut me off. "If this is about you being gay, Justin," she said, "it's OK. I know, and it doesn't really matter."
It was actually nice to hear her say that. I remembered some of our talk a few weeks back, and I knew she didn't have a problem with me being gay, but still, it was nice to hear. Beside the point, though. "It's not that. I don't actually care much about that. It's... I have this problem."
"Oh, Justin, you need to learn to not lead with lines like that." Melanie had a big grin on her face, and I assume I'd just said something funny.
"I know," I snapped. "Dammit, I'm trying to tell you something. Shut up and let me do it."
I think that took Melanie by surprise. It took me by surprise, almost as much as the need to tell her did.
"Melanie, I'm not... normal. I've got this thing..." I looked away. This was hard, and I didn't really know how to say it. "I've got something called Asperger's Syndrome. It's a kind of mild form of autism. It's not contagious or anything like that, it's a genetic thing. My parents both show signs, and I got a good hit of it. Not nearly as bad as some people, and I'm not retarded or anything, but still, I got it.
"It... it makes it really tough for me to handle social things. It's not like I don't feel anything, or don't understand that other people feel things. I've met kids that had those problems, in therapy, and I'm glad it's not me. But... doing anything social is really hard. Things other people do by reflex I have to think about. Things you... see about other people, things that let you know how they're feeling, I don't see that stuff. Body language, voice cues, things like that, they just don't register, not instinctively." I saw my hands were fiddling with the handle of the door as I was speaking. It had been years since I had done that, and it took a serious act of will to make them stop again.
"If I work at it hard, I can pick it up, but I have to look, and I have to think about it. It's... it's sort of like mostly understanding a foreign language. You can understand, but it takes all your brain, and you're always thirty seconds behind as you sort things out. It's not like I can't manage to be out in public, I can, but close-in social encounters are tough. I usually come off like a total dork, and even when I don't, if the conversation gets ahead of me, I say things before I can think about it. That's another problem -- my mouth gets ahead of my brain. When I'm not careful, I say what I'm thinking before I can stop myself." I heard a click and noted absently that Melanie'd tripped the electric door locks. That was probably good, since I was fiddling with the door handle again, and I didn't think I could stop this time.
"I mean, look at me," I said. "What do you see?"
Melanie took a moment to look me over. "I see someone who's anxious, very nervous. Someone who's doing something very uncomfortable, and taking a big risk out of trust." Melanie knew what I was really asking. That didn't surprise me.
"I look at you and I see..." I looked her over. "Someone who's driving a car."
Melanie raised an eyebrow at me. Maybe I wasn't that bad, but it was only a little bit of an exaggeration. A depressingly little bit.
I couldn't stop there, though. My speech had a life of its own by this point. "In therapy they told me this all comes with a kind of deep obsessive focus and mild clumsiness. I got sort of lucky that way -- the thing I focused on was kung fu, and at least there I got to compensate for the clumsy." I gave a little laugh, though it wasn't really funny. "Way overcompensate, but still, it's something. The kung fu helps in its own way too, since there's a lot of body reading in it. It's sort of specialized, y'know, figuring out how someone's going to hit you, but learning how to do that helped a lot in learning how to puzzle out other things." I probably would've told her that verbal spew's another part of the problem, but I'd said that last part in one breath, and I didn't have any air left to say it with.
"So you're not completely hopeless?" Melanie said that with a smile.
"No," I replied, shaking my head. "I can be trained. That's where a lot of the therapy was when I was little, teaching me how to behave, building up reflexive behaviors, things like that."
"Like training a dog?" Melanie had an appraising look on her face, and I was pretty sure she wasn't making fun of me.
"Yeah," I said, "it's a lot like training a dog. You do something and I know what to do in response. I can get by, more or less, but I don't think you can really get anyone prepared for high school, and I stopped therapy years ago anyway, since my parents thought I was doing OK. Of course, they've got the same problem that I do, so their judgment's a little suspect, and I don't get a great set of role models for normal behavior."
I sighed. "It's worse when I'm nervous -- I can just really freeze up, and sometimes I freak. If I don't have to worry so much and relax, it's a lot better. I still have issues, but at least I can talk. You're lucky," I said with a grin, "I feel comfortable around you, so you get to hear me talk. Rick, too."
I worried about that sometimes, though I never wanted to say anything. My friends let me go on, and nobody gave me any real crap about my tendencies to babble like an idiot, something I was really grateful for. Still, there were days I wondered if everyone was just humoring me and laughing when I was gone. I didn't think so -- I mean, nobody gave Paul a hard time and he was a juggler of all things -- but still, I worried. I hated not being able to tell.
Where the heck did he come in? "Bobby?" I snorted. "Bobby doesn't make me nervous. I don't know what's going on with him, but nervous? Nah. I think I can handle him."
I gave another sigh. "The other problem is new stuff. I really, really don't know how to handle new things, especially when there are people involved. I really can't... I just don't know how to handle it, and I get kind of freaky over weird things. When I do, I usually handle it badly." I slumped back in the seat of the car. This was all hard for me, but I felt like I had to say it.
"I don't know, Justin," said Melanie after a moment. "You seem to be doing OK."
"I can thank your boyfriend," I replied. The thought made me smile a little. "He wanted to be friends. He pushed, and wouldn't let me hide."
"Did you want to? Hide, I mean?"
"God, no," I said, shivering a little. "I hated it, being so lonely. It hurt so bad, just... less than not hiding."
"Well, don't worry, Justin," Melanie said, patting my leg. "We'll make sure you don't have to worry about being alone again."
We did the rest of the drive in a sort of companionable silence, which was nice. I dozed off a little, and was woken by a light shake and a cheerful voice.
"Okay, we're here," Melanie said.
Here, it turned out, was some sort of large fairgrounds place. Lots of big metal buildings, animal fencing, and cars. Lots and lots of cars.
"You brought me here to... buy a pig?"
"No, silly," she said. "It's the annual art exhibition. They run a show here every year the week before Thanksgiving."
"You dragged me into a car and drove for an hour to go see art?"
"Yes," she said, "I did." Then she proceeded to drag me out of the car and into the building to do just that.
The show was, for lack of a better word, overwhelming. The building was one of those massive clear-span metal warehouse-style places with cement floors. The inside of the building was filled with booths and people. Lots and lots of people. I wasn't looking forward to wading through the crowds. Crowds always made me a little nervous.
"This place is huge," I said to Melanie as I snagged a guide to the show. "What's going on?"
"It's the art and craft show," she said. "Every year they put it on, and people come from all over to exhibit. It's the week before Thanksgiving, so it's a good place to do some Christmas shopping, and there are a few juried competitions for different arts and crafts. It's pretty good all around -- artists get to display their work, get judged, and sell the art afterward. I think they arrange it so that everyone who enters looks like they've won or something, so just getting in gets a ribbon or medal."
"This is... overwhelming." It was for me, definitely. While the building was huge, it was packed with stalls and people, so just getting through to look at anything seemed like it'd be an unpleasant, if not downright uncomfortable, chore.
"It is a bit much, isn't it? The other two buildings aren't quite as bad," Melanie said as she surveyed the crowds.
I got a nasty sick feeling in my stomach. "Other two? There are more?" I think I squeaked a little.
"Oh, yes," she said. "This is a bit more than a third of what's here. This is mostly the commercial and crafty art."
"So we're here to do... what? Christmas shopping? People-watch? Pass out from the crush of the crowd? " That last one was a definite possibility. I was getting more and more queasy as I thought about the crowds.
"No, Justin, we're here to look at art." She grabbed my hand and we were off.
If the point was to look at art we weren't doing too good a job of it, since we weren't actually looking at anything as we went. Melanie was plowing through the crowds like a linebacker, glancing from side to side as we moved through the aisles and booths. We apparently had a destination; she just didn't know where it was.
"You know what we're looking for," I asked as we paused at the end of one of the aisles.
"I know where we're going," she said absently, looking over the hall, "just not where it is."
"That doesn't make much sense."
"There's a booth I'm looking for," she said patiently. "I know the number, but the booths aren't in any order."
Oh. That did make sense. "So why don't we just look at the map?"
"The map. We got some sort of guidebook thing when we came in. It has a map in it." I held up the book I'd grabbed back at the entrance and showed it to her.
Melanie took the book without comment and looked in it for a minute, until she found whatever it was she was looking for.
"Oh, it's in the second building," she said. "No wonder I couldn't find it."
And with that, we set off plowing through the crowd again, this time for one of the exits. I swear, if they allowed co-ed football I think she could've taken down half the school team.
"Aha, here it is," she exclaimed after a few minutes of full-contact crowd control. We'd left the main building, made our way through some sort of connecting breezeway, and into the middle of a smaller, but still huge, hall. I'm pretty sure she hadn't hurt more than half a dozen people getting there, either. Well, not hurt too badly, at least.
Melanie was ahead of me by maybe ten feet when she said that. She stopped, turned, and gestured to a booth on the lefthand side of the aisle. I could only see the far wall of it right then, and only a few of the pictures on it. They were easy to recognize, though -- I saw the face of Kismet, Bobby's dog, looking out at me.
Now, the booth itself was pretty simple, and like just about every other booth in the place. Made of pegboard, there was a back and two side walls, with a table in front. The side walls were sort of angled so the booth was wider at the front than at the back, I guess to make things display better or something. The art was hanging on the walls, and there were some of those halogen spotlight things highlighting a few of the pieces.
I saw it all, at once. Table in front, some papers and a receipt book scattered on it. Folding metal chair half pushed out, with a worn leather jacket draped over it. The right wall, the one I'd seen first, had pictures of Kismet, all done in charcoal, half of them were matted, the other half in simple frames. They ranged from her as a puppy to one that he must've sketched from memory, of Kismet on an examining table with the stillness of death hanging about it. Another time I'd have been impressed and deeply moved, but not right then.
The left wall had landscape paintings. Dunno what they were done in, but the colors were all bright and clear, and I noted absently that there was a little black and white dog somewhere in each one. She was even peeking out from the window of a treehouse in one of them, wearing an eye patch and a bandana, and I'd no doubt that at some point Bobby'd hauled that poor dog twenty feet up into a tree to play pirates when he was little.
Plastered across the back of the booth was... me.
I just stood there, horror washing over me as I looked at all the versions of me. There must've been two dozen different pictures, mostly charcoal sketches, though the one dead-center on the back wall was a watercolor of me sitting under a tree, asleep. Some portraits, one of me in my gi, and one, oh god, of me naked, lying face down on a couch. Face, body, hands -- I was everywhere. Out in front. On display.
Everyone handles shock differently. I like to think that I handled it really well, for me.
I freaked, bolted, and ran.
I was far past overwhelmed and had to get out of there. I took a turn down a service corridor, past some little lounges, and past the bathrooms, heading for the exit door at the end. Unfortunately for me, I ran right into someone as he was coming out of the men's room, sending us crashing to the ground together. Unfortunately for the guy, it turned out to be Bobby, and seeing him just sent me off the deep end.
"You!" I shouted, grabbing him by the shirt, hauling him to his feet, and slamming him against the wall. "What the fuck do you think you're doing? How could you? How could you put me on display like that, you bastard? God, I'm going to rip your fucking head off and..." I'd let go of his shirt with my right hand, so I could haul off and beat on him, when someone caught it from behind and yanked me back. I let go of Bobby with my other hand, and he slumped to the ground.
"Justin, we're going to talk. Now!" It was Melanie who had my hand, and she dragged me a few feet down the hall and out the door to the area behind the building. We were surrounded by dumpsters, pallets, and pavement, though I didn't much care -- I was far too worked up.
"I can't believe he did that! How could he? God, I feel so... violated. And when the hell did he see me naked?" I was furious, and ranting, and freaked out. Not a good combination, but there you go. I really don't handle surprises at all well.
"He never asked, he never said anything! He just... Argh!" I was storming around in little circles, my arms flailing around as I did. It probably looked funny, from a distance.
"Justin!" It vaguely registered that Melanie was talking to me, but I wasn't paying any attention.
"I'm going to kill him." I had a vision in my head of kicking Bobby's ass. A lot. It wasn't calming me down. "I swear, I'm going to go over there and..."
Here's an important safety tip -- never ignore Melanie. I was ranting and probably looked like I was going to be violent, which I was about to be, and I wasn't paying any attention to her. Since shouting at me had no effect, she switched tactics and punted me in the nuts. That got my attention. Granted, I still wasn't listening to Melanie, but I'd at least stopped ranting. Instead I was on the ground, groaning.
"Now you hear me, Justin Payne," she shouted. I looked up as best I could through the pain and saw her looming over me as I was grabbing my very sore crotch. "You are going to go get a hold of yourself, then you are going over there and you are going to apologize for your abominable behavior." Yes, she did say abominable. I think this may be the first time I've ever heard anyone use that word in a sentence.
"I'm going to what?" I opened my eyes wide and got a good look at Melanie, leaning over me and looking ready to spit fire.
"You. Are. Going. To. Apologize." Each word was punctuated with a poke to my chest. I think I had a bruise by the time she was done.
"With what he did, I have to apologize?" The throbbing pain was masked, at least briefly, by anger.
"What he did was out of line, but you -- you went off the deep end. Do you have any idea how badly you hurt Bobby?"
"Me? Hurt Bobby?" I snorted. "Yeah, right."
"Yes, you," she said, poking me again. I was definitely going to bruise. At least it was distracting me from the other pain.
"Do you remember what I said in the car? How some things bother me more than other people, and I'm not good with new situations? Well, this is one of those things, and it's all new. He put me on display. That bothers me. `Bothers' meaning freak out, panic, run away and puke in the corner."
"Oh." That was a very expressive `Oh', as was the silence. I think that Melanie may have finally figured out how normal I'm not, though this isn't the way I would've chosen. I probably should've gotten up off the ground, but then she probably shouldn't have laid me out there in the first place. She had, and I wouldn't put it past her to do it again, so I stayed put.
"Okay, Justin, I'm going to be clear here so you understand. What Bobby did was wrong. He shouldn't have displayed any pictures of you without your permission. He needs to apologize for that, and then you two need to work out something for it. But." She glared at me. "You overreacted. A lot. What he did wasn't that bad, certainly nothing that requires death threats. Yes, I can see how badly it affected you, but that still doesn't excuse what you said to Bobby.
"This is one of those cases where it doesn't matter how much a situation bothers you -- there's a limit to how much you can react, and you've gone far past the end of that limit." I moved to get up and started to protest, but she held up a hand and I stopped, very aware of how close to my crotch her foot was. "Consider this your first social lesson, Justin. There are acceptable standards of behavior even when taking offense to something. You went very far outside those standards. Bobby shouldn't have done what he did, but neither should you."
I took a couple of deep breaths, got calm, and tried to put the pain beside me. Unfortunately, I had no idea what to do next, so being sensible seemed the order of the day. "What do I do, then?"
Melanie smiled. That was the right thing to say, apparently. "First, you go apologize to Bobby for going ballistic. Then you calmly tell him what's wrong. Then the two of you work something out."
I opened my mouth to start to say something, but Melanie covered it with a finger. "No, don't tell me. I'll wait here."
I didn't know what I was going to say, but I was pretty sure I didn't want Melanie to hear it. I knew she knew a lot of what was going on between Bobby and I, but I didn't know if she knew everything, and right now I wasn't feeling like telling her anything else. "Wait in the car?"
She hit me with a cold stare. "Not likely, Justin. Someone's got to be around to protect Bobby from you. I'll wait here." She crossed her arms. It was clear she wasn't moving.
I sighed. "Fine," I said. "Wait here. I'll go talk to him."
Bobby was still where I'd left him, sitting on the floor, looking... crumpled. His knees were pulled up, his arms holding them tight against his chest. His head was down, forehead resting on his knees, and he was rocking back and forth a little. I think he might have been crying. It struck me then that he looked very much like he had when we'd buried Kismet, and the anger just drained out of me.
I'd done this. What I'd said, what I did. I'd done it.
I felt like shit.
I knelt down in front of him and gave him a tap on the shoulder to try and get his attention. "Bobby?"
He looked up at me. Even I could tell he was miserable. He hadn't been crying, his cheeks weren't wet, but he might as well have been, given how he looked. His eyes were red and puffy, and he looked horrible.
"I'm sorry, Justin," he said quietly. "I should have asked. I didn't mean to hurt you..." He trailed off and hung his head down again.
Yeah, like I wasn't feeling bad enough as it was. Fuck.
I sighed and sat down next to him. "It's OK, Bobby. I really over-reacted. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have."
I put my hand on his shoulder, and felt him shiver. Fuck again. Between a couple of months of nasty revenge and me going ballistic, I'd really screwed him up.
"Listen, Bobby," I said. "About those pictures..."
Bobby raised his head and looked at me. "I'll take them down, I promise. I'm sorry..."
I thought for a moment. I hadn't remembered seeing any ribbons or anything, so I didn't think the judging had happened. I hated the thought of everyone looking at me, but Bobby was good, and I didn't want him getting hurt any more because of me. The damage was done, the pictures were already there. Maybe it'd be OK if I just didn't look at them.
"No, you don't have to do that," I said quietly. "I don't like them -- I really don't like them -- but the judging hasn't happened yet, and if you pull them down, it'll look bad. Leave them up, just... no more, all right? And don't sell any, please."
Bobby looked up at me and gave a wan smile. "Okay, Justin. I promise."
"Thanks," I said. I squeezed his shoulder, then stood and went outside to where Melanie was waiting.
"No blood," she asked.
"Nah," I said. My voice was sort of quiet. I was still feeling really badly about what I'd done. "No blood. If it's OK with you, could we go home? Please? I don't... I don't think I ought to stay here any longer."
"All right, Justin," she said. "We'll go."
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