Time passes, whether we want it to or not. I wanted time to pass, so that the loneliness would wash itself out of my heart. I sat in front of my mother's tombstone, pulling the weeds too close to the red marble, and brushing the dirt from her chiseled name. I allowed my fingers to trace the name slowly, fingernails catching on the rough edges of the stone. My fingers left the groove of the first letter, moved across the smooth polished surface, and into the next letter.
"Momma...sometimes I wish I'd never been born at all," I said softly as the loneliness became overwhelming. The words on the headstone became blurry to me, but my fingers continued their loving trek across the stone that bore testament to my mother having been alive once.
The stone didn't answer, and the tears subsided eventually, as they always did eventually. A light breeze kicked up and brushed some of my hair across my brow, forcing me to push it from my eyes. My dad was worried; I wasn't talking much again, since Greg left.
I went to his house that night and learned much, standing on the porch and hearing the argument inside as it raged between Greg and his parents. It seems that Caspian Software was in shaky financial position at best, almost untenable, and the new encoding development meant a lot of people would keep jobs, even if a great many were headed for San Diego, Greg and family included. Mrs. C tried to console Greg, I guess they thought it all was best, unfortunate that he and I would be broken up, but necessary for many others. Hey, I saw Star Trek; I know Spock said something about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, or the one.
But I still felt like shit when he died.
I knocked at their door, and was allowed in. Mr. Caspian seemed very sorry, as did his wife, although I would have told them to save it, had I only been able. Maybe they think nothing of the relationship they were rending apart, but I just plain didn't feel that way. I loved Greg, and I knew I always would, but I also knew that I had to let him go. I couldn't keep him, nor could I leave my father to chase after him. I had to set him free.
We went upstairs and cuddled for a long time, before he spoke.
"I don't have any choices, Jake. I have to leave. I don't know what would be worse, staying a few weeks to see you, knowing the time was coming that I would lose you, or going now and trying to take all the pain at once," he near whispered in misery.
"And so I'll go, and yet I know I'll think of you each step of the way," the tears tracked down my face in time with his, and he began to shake his head no.
"You can't go, Jake," he began to plead, which only made it harder, but I loved him and I had to do it.
"Did we intend to be the romantic novel you'd never want to end?" I asked with a small sad smile.
"Jake, we still have a few days, shouldn't we spend them together? I don't have to go right away..." he trailed off. I knew though that this would bring him more pain than if we tried to break as clean as we could. I owed it to him to be strong, after all Tommy always said I was the one with the strength.
"Goodbye. Please don't cry, we both know I'm not what you need. But I will always love you," I said gently, if haltingly through my own tears and chest hitching for breath. I stood and he stood unsteadily.
"Jake, I love you, and I always will," he sighed and then hit his bed with both hands in frustration, "I don't even know how we got here!"
"Just you and me at a crossroads there, accidentally thrown together," I took his hand and moved in slowly until I couldn't see that beautiful pain-wracked face, "And it's the contact with the eye that meets across the crowded room, and how I kind of wound up the lyrics to your tune."
I leaned in close and we kissed, the kiss of the desperate, a last kiss before falling into the abyss, like desperadoes under the eaves. We finally broke that bittersweet kiss, and I ran my fingers along his cheek, and murmured softly, "Please remember me."
Then I left, and a few days later so did he. Oh god, I missed him.
I looked at the headstone and brushed the top off, removing a small twig that marred the stone's attempt at placid solemnity. When the chips were down, I put Greg ahead of me; I did what had to be done.
"Didn't I turn out to be everything you wanted, Ma? Ain't you proud of me?" I said to the indifferent stone.
"Well, she'd probably correct your English, being as she taught it, you know," my father's voice made me jump.
"Sorry, didn't mean to make you jump," he said as he squatted on his haunches next to me. I returned my hand to the carved name on the stone, allowing my fingers to trace the red stone.
"I come here too, sometimes, when I need to feel close to her," he said, allowing his own fingers to move across the cut stone. "Did I ever tell you about the time we met?"
I sat back on my butt, shaking my head 'no' as I watched my father.
"Well, she and I were at college, first year students, and you are required to take certain first year, basic courses. Some Math, some English, so on and so forth.
"I was in the same English composition class with your mother, and, God, she was beautiful. She could make that dull class seem like Sex Ed, it was so interesting," he laughed.
"I was struggling in the class, and naturally she was excelling, so she ended up tutoring me. I finally screwed up the courage to ask her out one night, after she had helped me to write a paper. She said no, it would be inappropriate since she was assisting me," he smiled at the memory.
I stared at him expectantly, but he seemed to be lost in the past for a few minutes, trapped in a memory of a world where I didn't exist yet and there were no rollovers where cars went upside down, right side up, upside down, killing mothers and sisters and daughters.
Or make brothers and sons talk in riddles.
He came back from his reverie, looking at me blankly for a moment. "So, I did the only logical thing I could do, I fired her," he grinned, "we had a great date, then another and before you knew it we were out of school, working and doing the average family complete with two cars and a garage."
We sat there in the fading sunshine, the day looking as though the colors were fading like old clothes, the vividness blending with the impending darkness.
"So, ah, I guess you were talking to your mom, huh?" he asked. I merely nodded in tacit agreement.
"I guess you really were in love, I never thought I'd see it so young, but it sure was love I saw in your eyes for him, and him for you," my dad said softly, and my tears began to well anew.
"Sometimes the magic of the past is all we've got," I replied thickly.
"Yeah, I understand that sure enough. How was it like, for you? How did you feel about him?" he asked softly. I grunted and tried to clear my throat.
"Off balance," I smiled at the memory of that first day, "I found love the only place to fall."
"Do you still?"
"In my heart, in my soul."
"Well, buddy, what say we get pizza?" he asked, I merely shrugged in response.
Home reminded me of Greg, as everything did. I recalled how he critiqued my music, the eagerness as I tried to get him to stay that first night. I remember so well the contours of his chest as he stood in my kitchen; oblivious to the effect he was having on me.
"Hey, Jake," Nick said as he entered my room with a short rap at the door, "how we doing today?"
"Love's got a lot to answer for," I mumbled.
"Oh, jeez, are we going to talk about Greg again?" he sighed as he sat next to me and draped an arm across my shoulders.
"My best friend," I said as I leaned my head on his shoulder.
"You know, I had hoped you'd have started to get over this a little by now, I'm a little worried about you, I don't mind saying."
"I've been up all night looking at the big picture," I replied.
"So? You finally going to smarten up and date me?" he asked in his boldest gambit to date. I looked at him, shocked.
"It's no secret I like you, Tull," he laughed, "at least not to you. I was joking, man, joking!"
"If you want my body, and you think I'm sexy," I began and was promptly tackled.
"Of course I do! Take me, Jake, take me now!" he screamed as we began to laugh.
"Do I need this?" my father asked as he stood in the doorway, banana in hand.
"Jake, will you hurry up? We'll be late!" Nick nagged at me while I brushed my teeth. Nick had taken it upon himself to be my personal attendant and was just about the best friend you could want, making sure I got to school, classes, he even tried to dictate some of my diet! He could be a real pain in the ass, but he was doing it all from love.
Yeah, love. I knew it, and so did he, but it wasn't what you might think. He never once tried anything, nothing beyond a little flirting, anyways. Once in a while he would make me laugh, and that was a rarity. He showed up at the crack of dawn it seemed and had coffee with my father, god bless him, and then came upstairs to force me into motion. I admit, I was more than a little run down without Greg. But it had been three months, wasn't it time I got over this?
Would I ever?
School had been a lot harder too, without Greg. I got more flak, more pushing and jostling than was strictly necessary, and yeah, even outright name-calling. So far nothing I couldn't ignore, but even a stone is worn down if you pour enough water across it.
While Nick did everything outside of school, the rest of them tried to motivate me in school. Tommy was forever harping on my homework, Mark trying to make me talk, and Jesse, well, Jesse was making eyes at Trevor who seemed to be noticing that Jesse was filling out nicely. It was all just going through the motions though, my center was gone and it became apparent as we slowly began to drift. I don't think we meant for it to happen, and I don't think we necessarily noticed it either. The beginning of school saw football and soccer start, which took Tommy and Mark as well as Trevor. Jesse just sat on the sidelines and watched. Rich had taken a part time job at the local Price Cutter, a supermarket chain, and I just didn't see that much of him anymore.
Oh, and there was Ron.
He was the one person that just couldn't seem to contain himself, was Ron. If anything he increased the frequency of his petty acts, adding in a few shoves into lockers and the odd bruise, even tying my gym clothes into soaking knots before I returned from showering. Stupid shit, I know, but still it was water passing over me. It never occurred to me until later that his attacks always were worse after one of Jesse's so-called 'therapy sessions' whereby it was pointed out to him that he could simply choose to not be gay. Now, that line of reasoning takes a special kind of stupid.
He grabbed me once in the hallway, threw me up against the wall and as I drew a leg up to defend myself, he walked right into my knee. All of a sudden I had this reputation as a guy with balls, because I had rammed my knee into his. Ron also thought I had done it purposely, and strangely it seemed to make him more wary of me. I hadn't had any trouble for about three days when I went to my locker after last period. I knew Nick wouldn't be there because he had gone home early, sick. It was something of a relief to have some time to myself, not that I didn't love him dearly, but still! As I approached my locker my nose registered an acrid scent and I was greeted by a large pink 'fag' written on my locker door. To make matters worse my lock had been broken, as the dial wouldn't turn. Upon closer inspection it had been melted, the plastic dial practically glued to the metal underneath. I studied it for a moment in frustration before going to search for a janitor who might be able to unlock it with a key, as the middle of the dial contained a regular lock.
I headed to the stairs - a set was placed in each corner of the building - and headed downstairs. The first floor is the normal stopping point, but I pushed through the tan door under the stairs and headed for the basement. I headed down to the maintenance department, which had its offices, if you wanted to call it that, and hopefully some assistance. I always thought this area of the school was interesting, it had underground tunnels to take it to the junior high and there were underground rooms and whatnot that gave it a surreal effect. The hallway was poorly lit, old school equipment like desks and even an old popcorn machine stood silent sentry in the gloom where it seemed two to three lights in a row were out or flickering.
I was humming softly to myself and that's probably why I never heard the footsteps, not until it was too late. I heard the steps and turned partway as something solid whistled through the air and connected with my arm with the force of a runaway train. I blanked for a moment, the pain was so exquisite and immediate, and I stumbled to my left and crashed into the popcorn machine, the plexiglass cracking loudly under my weight. I tried to push up on my arm and found the wrist would not support the weight, and I rolled a bit rather than collapse as I tried to turn and face my attacker, and as I half turned a second blow hit my chest, accompanied with a cry of pure hatred. A sickening wet crack announced ribs giving way, and suddenly it was a labor to breathe.
I stumbled to one knee, heart hammering in my chest as panic flared in my mind and I began to scuttle forward. "No you don't, you little fag mutie boy, I ain't done yet," my attacker managed and I heard the steps drawing closer. I turned painfully and thrust my foot out in desperation. I felt it connect solidly, and then slide forward as my attacker grunted in pain. I might have hit a leg, my mind yammered madly about death and trying to flee.
"Yell Help," I said breathlessly as I struggled to my feet, leaning heavily on a desk as I did so, and I pirouetted slowly to try and face my attacker. The flickering light revealed Ron Cantarme coming at me, clearly favoring his left knee as he closed the distance with a Louisville Slugger in hand. I tipped the desk I was leaning on into his path and backed away from him as the murderous intent in his eyes showed in the fitful shafts of light from the naked overhead bulbs.
"Bastard, you made Greg a fag. You just won't let my cousin get any better either, will you? You gotta infect people," he breathed a bit raggedly as he knocked the table from his path and continued to advance as I slowly retreated, "but if I take you out, show 'em all you aren't that special, then we'll see, won't we?" he grinned. "Too late for Greg, but Jesse can still be ok."
Things happened fast then, my hand brushed on a straight backed wooden chair, and bare moments later he charged with a bellow of rage. Dimly I heard a janitor yell, probably from the doorway for the workshop they had down here. My injured ribcage cried out in protest as I lifted the chair, and assisted with my other hand to ram it in Ron's path. The chair collapsed in a shower of dust and Ron was on me, hands around my throat and we went down in a heap, my chest crying out in agony as our combined weight hit the concrete floor.
Things got a little muddled from there, I dimly remember being hit in the face, one eye closing real fast and then the crushing weight was off me, but I was still having a hard time breathing. Strong hands lifted me gently enough, I suppose, but under the circumstances I would have been in pain if simply on the ground.. I was half carried, half dragged even, into the light of the maintenance shop.
"How many fingers you see, buddy?" came a strong voice.
"Fingers?" rattled from my chest in a shattered breath.
"Okay, hang on, we'll get you some help here. Um, here, breathe slowly," came the voice again. I dimly heard a small scuffle and then a sharp odor filled my senses, burning my throat and making my lungs ache worse, if you can believe it. But I was awake.
"Hi, this is Joe down in maintenance, we had a fight just now and I have a kid down here, looks like he needs some attention real fast, can we have the school nurse down here, and the assistant principal? This kid was attacked," he stated firmly.
I think I blanked out for a moment, then I awoke in the nurse's office, strapped to a flat board. I don't think anyone realized it right away, and my mind slowly began to tick off the damage. Breathing was difficult at best, ribs felt like they were resisting any movement at all. My arm was on fire, a dull ache that flared to life if I so much as twitched. One eye was closed, the other barely open.
"He seems to be coming around," a voice said and I recognized a face in my vision.
"How you doing, Jake?" asked Mr. Rockwell, the assistant principal.
"The show must go on," I replied very softly, lips aching and feeling split.
"Okay, where is the victim?" a strange voice said with some urgency.
"Here, on the stretcher," chimed another voice. I was lifted and moved to a gurney, I think, but the movement caused a flare of fire in my chest so painful I almost wished I could die, just to have it over. Maybe my heart had broken too, finally, and this was what it felt like to die of just that.
"Okay, let's get him moving, we'll get vitals on the way," the strange voice said and I began to feel the air move past me as I rolled down the hallway and out the front door. The wheels rolled slowly over the doorframe, but the jolt sent a fresh wave of pain, and nausea decided to join in on the fun. It was like a horse race, I thought crazily, and I could almost hear the announcer in my head.
'There they go, ladies and gentleman! King of Pain is out to a quick lead, Nausea staying at a close second, and the dark horse Breaking Heart is trailing along the inside rail. Nausea swells forward, he looks to be inching past King of Pain as we mark the first turn,' I felt the bile building at the back of my throat and the feeling slowly passed.
I was locked into place in the ambulance, and even the doors slamming shut rattled the frame and gave King of Pain the advantage by a length. Each bump in the street felt like an asteroid crashing into my chest and it seemed as though we would never reach the hospital. Of course, we did eventually, and I was jostled into the emergency room.
I awoke with the sight of bright lights in my view, taupe walls that were supposed to be soothing, but which actually reminded me of puke. Suddenly Nausea made an astounding comeback and there was no stopping my body as it ejected the contents of my stomach, chest heaving in agonizing convulsions as my mouth filled with that awful taste.
It was over as soon as it had come as King of Pain resumed its lead in this race, muscles throbbing in time with my heart. I lay bonelessly on my bed.
"I'm Doctor Briscoe, try and relax, Jacob," came a concerned voice. A white lab coat was the first thing I noticed before the face registered, a smooth and calm face and a shock of dark hair on his angular features.
"You had quite a wild ride, still feeling nauseous?" he asked kindly.
"No," I whispered, "hurts."
"I'm sure it does, I'll order you up some pain meds right now. Really needed you to regain consciousness before we put you back under, you've been out for a few hours, shock can do that to a body. You ready to hear the damage report?" he asked while moving farther into my field of vision as he shone a light in my eyes, first the right, then the left. Damage report? Who did he think I was? Captain Picard?
"You have a broken arm, simple break fortunately, and you have four cracked ribs. So far no evidence of internal bleeding, but we are keeping you for observation."
"Dad?" I croaked. It seemed a new horse, Thirst, had entered the fray.
"Right outside, I'll tell him you're awake. There are some policeman that want to see you too, I think they'll have to do that tomorrow though."
"Dad," I repeated.
"Right, I'll go get him," and with that he made a few notes on the chart on my bed and headed out. A brief murmur of conversation could be heard.
"Jake," my father's voice cracked and he moved into my field of vision, a hand tracing my face.
"Jake, how do you feel? Well, that's dumb, I guess you hurt pretty good.. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you scared me!" he said, tears welling in his eyes and at the sight, mine welled up too. Well, my one eye that was open. I felt him dab my eyes with a napkin or something and then I could see again.
I have to admit it wasn't much of a conversation, my dad left fairly quickly, I think my face really was just too much for him. It wasn't long before the nurse came in and put something in my IV anyway, and I drifted off.
I awoke to the TV being on, and a ridiculous urge to pee. I struggled slightly and realized with some horror that I was going. I mean, going. I looked down in a panic, pain dulling my senses, otherwise I might have noted the tube draining away my waste a little faster. Oh well.
"Hey, you're finally awake. I was afraid you might just slip away from me there, bub," Nick's voice penetrated my haze, then he filled my vision, concern etched on his face.
"You okay?" he asked.
"I will survive," I replied softly.
"I was so scared, I can't imagine what it would be like without you. Makes me think, you know?" he inhaled deeply then let out his breath, "I was thinking about how some people never get to know what you really think, or how you really feel. So I just want you to know, I love you, Jake. I will always be your friend, no matter what happens," he said with no small degree of conviction. My eyes went blurry and I felt his lips press softly on mine, a delicate kiss if there ever was one, and I returned it with as much love as I could.
"Butterfly kisses," I managed as we parted.
"I saw something interesting in this morning's paper," he said as he wiped his own eyes and sat down across from me, "Looks like Caspian Software is going to be spun off," he commented as he watched me intently. I and looked at him steadily.
"I'm guessing that means you didn't see the paper?" he smiled, "Well, turns out that the Justice Department was charging that the new encoding software that Caspian had developed was a little too important. Seems as though it creates an unfair market advantage, therefore they will have to be spun off, free to peddle their wares to the highest bidder," he finished as he studied my reaction. Naturally he had my complete attention, pains still there but for a moment I could stave them off.
If Caspian was on its own again, might they take up their corporate offices again? Might that mean that Greg would return?
"Well, there is a smile I haven't seen in a while!" he commented somewhat sadly.
"It's going to be a bright, bright, sunshiny day," I responded with a feeling that maybe things would finally start to get better.