Alexi hobbled into the church, Evan at his back. He stopped as soon as he passed the threshold and took a deep, steadying breath, closing his eyes, allowing the old familiar smells to flow into him. ‘Ah, incense…’ A small smile curved his lips even as a shudder ran through him, bringing back old memories.
“You okay?” Evan whispered, putting his hand on the small of Alexi’s back.
“Yeah…Not here, okay?” he answered, as he stepped away from Evan’s comforting touch.
Alexi crossed himself and moved towards the front of the empty church. Evan stayed at the back, observing with a frown as Alexi stood in front of an icon and prayed silently, his head bowed. A few minutes later, the two boys were once again next to each other, in the back of the dimly-lit building, each consumed by their own thoughts. Finally, Evan broke the silence, though he still kept his voice hushed.
“I thought you said you didn’t actually believe in the Church as an institution.”
“So what was all that about?”
“Tradition, mostly. The Church may be a corrupt and manipulative entity as a whole, but I suppose this is a case where some parts are better than the sum, if that makes any sense.”
“Not really, no.”
“There are good people to be found everywhere, Evan. Including inside a church. And some beliefs are so strong that even the most skeptical of us find themselves unable to shake them. Take that icon. It’s supposed to do miracles.” Evan snorted derisively and Alexi raised his hand in acceptance. “Don’t get me wrong, I really don’t buy that it cries blood or anything like that. But a lot of people do. And others put all their conviction into it, even if it’s not rational. I guess, it’s about a symbol. Some sort of actual physical representation of a divine, invisible force. It’s easier to believe in something you see, you know?”
“But what about that whole fake idols commandment thing?”
Alexi couldn’t stifle his giggle.”Yes…the commandment thing. Icons are actually an exception from the rule. And when you have something like that…” Alexi pointed towards the front of the church “well, like I said, it’s just easier to believe. And it gives people comfort. Hope.”
“Yeah, fake hope.”
“Perhaps. Probably. Who knows?” Alexi said, shrugging. “But it’s still important, Evan. It was for me, at the most trying of times. You have no idea how many times I thought God has forsaken me.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that…”
“You’re not the only one with a past, Alexi…” Evan closed his eyes. ‘This is it. I have to tell him. I have to…’
“Evan…You know I’m here to listen, right? I mean, I know I haven’t actually been forthcoming about everything myself, but if we’re to build something strong between us, then, sooner or later…”
“I know. And I want to…No, I don’t want to, but I NEED to be honest. But I’m scared you’ll take one look at me, the real me and then run as fast as you can, as far as you can.”
“Well, I’m sure you can catch up.” Alexi said, smiling, lifting his cane.
“It’s not funny.” Evan grumbled. “I told you, I don’t know why the hell…”
“Sorry. I don’t know why I feel the way I do about you. I honestly don’t. But I do. And seeing you turn your back on me would be unbearable right now…” he trailed off, as he lowered his head.
“Hey. Hey…” Alexi put his hand on Evan’s cheek as he moved in front of him.
“I thought you said not here…” Evan smiled.
“You really need a shave.” Alexi ignored Evan’s comment and both boys smiled more broadly.
“Why are there no pews? I really feel like sitting down.”
“Traditional Orthodox Church. We stand ‘til our legs are sore.” Alexi chuckled. “Shows more respect or something…THAT is definitely one thing I never liked about the church.”
“I have to agree with you there.” A new voice came from behind Alexi and startled him. He quickly took his hand from Evan’s face and turned to face the newcomer. As he took in the appearance of the short, stocky man, his dark hair peppered with grey, just like his beard, soft, pale blue eyes, laugh lines and crooked nose, a small smile returned to his lips.
“Father Anton.” Alexi said a breath later, and took the man’s right hand and kissed it.
“Alexi. It’s good to see you. I was afraid…”
“Umm, yeah, I guess you know everything, right?”
“Mmmm…” the priest answered, in a non-committal manner.
“I mean…do you know…about me? Like, why my father did that?”
“You know how our community is, Alexi. Rumors and whispers…”
“…soon turning to accusation and damnation.” Alexi sighed. “Yeah…Look, I’m sorry. I understand you don’t want me here. I was actually hoping I could talk to you, but…it’s alright. I’m sorry.” He said softly and turned towards the large doors.
“Why are you sorry? Because you’re afraid that even a man of God would judge and reject you, or because you are who you are?”
“No, not that. Not anymore.” Alexi said, with a quick glance at Evan. The priest didn’t fail to take note of that look and nodded.
“Alexi, I thought we’d already covered that. Maybe not every priest is like me. Well, I know that’s true, but, I told you, the essence of faith for me is love. Love for EVERYONE.”
“Yeah. Love thy neighbor…unless he’s different. Right?” Evan spat contemptuously.
Father Anton looked the young man up and down, then finally exhaled noisily, in frustration and surrender. “I know that’s how it is most of the time, and I’m ashamed of that. I’m ashamed of how human beings treat one another because of their differences. But I always believed I had made a better impression on you, Alexi.” he said, once again facing the younger of the two teenagers. “I thought you’d think better of me. Especially since, well, it’s not like I hadn’t figured out what was troubling you long before this summer.”
“What?” Alexi asked, alarmed, while the priest chuckled.
“Well, you’re an intelligent young man and it is always a pleasure to talk to you, but some of the conversations we had earlier in the year…Well, they were obviously borne from some great struggle. I had hoped that eventually you’d come to truly confide in me, so that I may help you more, but unfortunately, that didn’t happen in time. I’m sorry, son.”
“Don’t be. You did help me. Talking to you was often the only thing that kept me sane. And it wasn’t just…you know…being…err, gay. There were other problems…”
“Yes. I know that now. And I am sorry, Alexi. I should have seen it sooner. I’m so sorry…” Alexi nodded and silence dropped down on all of them once again.
Evan didn’t understand the whole story. He wanted to ask more questions. He wanted to know, but he didn’t dare. The boy he loved had suffered and this priest had helped him in his own way. For that he was grateful. He didn’t want to reopen the discussion and dredge through more painful memories. But he did want them to talk. It was what Alexi had wanted in the first place, after all. ‘So, talk about the past, but try and keep it away from anything painful. Riiight…’ The past was always painful, in Evan’s experience.
“So…these conversations you two used to had. Did it include destiny and chosen paths and all that?”
The priest and Alexi both laughed heartily. “So, I guess he shared his opinions with you, then?”
“Yup. Just outside the church. Gotta say, it was some deep thinking for me.” Evan smiled, scratching his head.
“But do you agree with what he said?”
“Yeah. Makes sense, actually. And it’s something worth believing, I think.”
“Hmm…You don’t strike me as someone particularly religious.”
“Am I that transparent?” Evan asked, in mock surprise.
“In some ways. But there’s more to you than meets the eye.”
“Heh…A priest who’s a Transformers fan.”
“Well, it IS a good, if cheesy line. But in all seriousness, you seem just as troubled as young Alexi used to be, though perhaps for different reasons. I take it you two…”
“Err…yeah.” Evan answered, blushing, causing Alexi to giggle. Evan glared at him. “We’re in a church. Show some respect.”
“Sorry. But you’re just so cute when you blush. I mean, tough guy like you…” Alexi answered, still giggling. The priest shook his head at the pair of them, but still smiling. Yes, love was the driving force for his belief and it was obvious to him that there was something special between the two boys in front of him. “Sorry, father.” Alexi addressed the priest finally.
“Relax. It’s good to see you smile, Alexi. Now, as I was saying…You’re obviously carrying a burden, young man. I don’t know if you want to talk to anyone, but at least you’re willing to listen. And I agree that Alexi’s way of looking at things doesn’t sound all that bad.”
“Yeah. Elective destiny, in a way.”
“I suppose. Though some, more skeptical, would probably call it causality.”
“Well then, I guess I’m just more romantic than I thought.” Evan said and once again he blushed. “I mean, the whole notion…it’s kind of romantic to me.”
“I knew you were really a big softie under that tough guy facade.” Alexi said.
“I wish that were true. But what’s under this mask is far more rotten than you could imagine. Look, I’m sorry. I want to tell you everything, but I’m afraid. I just don’t want to lose you.” Evan looked down into Alexi’s eyes and could see tears there, even as he felt his own brimming. “How can I not believe in Destiny or some kind of divine power when you came about exactly when I needed you? I simply couldn’t live with myself any longer. And then I saw you. And that higher power, whatever it is, saw fit to bring us together. You’re a gift to me, and the sheer thought that you’ll recoil in disgust when you set your eyes on me sends me into a state of panic.”
“Shh…It’s alright. I’m not going anywhere. Well, I am…outside, in the truck. I told you I wanted you to meet someone, didn’t I?” he turned to the priest. “Father Anton, this is Evan. I love him. And I can’t help him. I see the burden he carries just as much as you do. I understand it’s not something he’s ready to share with me right now. Maybe never. And I accept that. I see the good in him. The love and bravery. And I feel safe around him, like I’ve never felt before. I couldn’t care less about what haunts his past, if it weren’t for the fact that it casts its shadow on the present and darkens our future. I want him to talk to someone. Help him ease that burden. Hear him out, father.”
“Alexi, no. I can’t…” Evan began to protest, but Alexi simply kissed him on his cheek and moved past him.
“Please. For me.” He whispered, then he once again kissed father Anton’s hand, thanked him for everything and walked out.
“Well…He’s a remarkable young man, Evan. And he cares for you a great deal. I think you should at least consider his idea. He wants to help. He’s willing to stay away, if that’s the only way you’ll feel comfortable. He just wants what’s best for you. That really is great devotion. And I know he hasn’t left the city long ago, so the short time in which you became so close is all the more remarkable.”
“Yeah, I know. I really don’t understand how it happened. And he is great. He often gets hung up on his physical shortcomings, which is ridiculous to me. He has a beautiful soul. Seriously, how can I neglect the notion of Destiny when someone in our positions end up in our situation?”
“Your position?” the priest raised an eyebrow inquisitively.
“Yeah. It’s…complicated. But all that matters is that we ARE together now and I’d do anything to protect him from now on. It’s just the past that I’m scared will hurt us. My past. I…When I was 14, I tried to kill a man.”
This time, both of the priests eyebrows shot up, as his eyes widened.
“Looking back on it, I realize how big an idiot I was. Not for what I did, but how I did it. I mean, I robbed a small store. And it wasn’t the money I was after. I knew the clerk kept a gun under the registry. I took advantage of a moment when he was distracted and I stole it. Of course, once I had the gun, I thought what the hell? Get the money as well. So, I did…But, like I said, it was the gun I was after. Because I wanted to kill the bastard who murdered my mom.”
“So, it was vengeance you were after? Because, while that is still wrong, it…”
“What, you’re one of those eye for an eye types? The guy was my mom’s drug dealer. She overdosed in a pile of garbage in a piss-filled back alley. So I wanted to kill the drug dealer.” Evan laughed bitterly. “Christ, how funny is that?”
“I fail to see the humor in that.”
“Mmm…That’s because you don’t know what my current situation is. I suppose, in a way, it’s poetic justice. Try to gut one dealer, serve another as punishment.”
“Look, it doesn’t matter. I appreciate what Alexi is trying to do. But even a good man like you would not fail to judge and be disgusted with me. And I don’t think I can handle that right now. I know who and what I am. I accept it, as painful as it is. But as long as Alexi doesn’t, as long as no one else that matters knows…I can keep up the pretense, even if it’s me I’m lying to more than anyone else. Once everything’s out in the open with someone like you, it becomes too real. I realize my father was right and I can’t change. And I’m just not ready for that. And I’m certainly not ready for Alexi to realize that and turn his back on me. I’m sorry, father, but I think I’ve already said more than enough. Thank you for listening, but now I must really go. Alexi’s waiting for me. Good bye.”
The priest watched as Evan turned and walked away, then exhaled the breath he’d been holding for the past minute and prayed for the two boys that had just left. And then he cursed under his breath. He did see that goodness in Evan, the part Alexi mentioned. And he already knew what a gentle soul Alexi was, despite his tendency to fall back on sarcasm and hostility as a way to mask his nervousness. They were good boys and there was so much pain pressing down upon them. It simply wasn’t fair.
“Well, this is it…Home sweet home.” Alexi said coldly, the bitterness almost choking him. Evan was standing next to him on the sidewalk, in front of Alexi’s childhood home, a fairly small, one-level structure. ‘Well, at least it has a large yard…’
“Well, how about giving me the grand tour?” Evan asked.
Alexi turned and scowled at him, but it only took a second for his features to relax and a shy smile to settle on his face. “For you…sure.”
They entered the house and stood in a narrow, long hallway. “Okay, so, that right there…” Alexi said, pointing straight ahead through an open arch “…is the living room. The kitchen’s further back, through there.” They walked along the hallway, to their right. “Master bedroom, bathroom, guest bedroom, another bathroom…” Alexi said, gesturing towards the closed doors as they moved past them. “And my room.” He hesitated for a second, then opened the door and stepped inside, closely followed by Evan. It was a small room. The light coming through the windows made the dust all too noticeable and Evan sneezed as some of it stirred from the movement.
“Sorry.” Alexi said. “Maid must’ve forgot to clean up.” He said, rolling his eyes.
“Ummm…No. It’s…nice.” Evan said, taking in everything. The small bed set along the opposite wall beneath the dirty window, the small desk with the small lamp and small bookcase and small closet and the small posters covering one entire wall. They were small, but there were so many, that it didn’t really matter. It was a true collage. Movie posters, bands, girls, cars, sports teams, celebrities, old, new, black and white and in color.
“Yeah. Right…It’s a shithole, Evan. I barely ever slept on that fucking bed without falling out of it, and it’s not like I’m a damn giant or anything.”
Alexi snorted. “You should get a job in advertising. You’re one of those people that likes to use all sorts of hip phrases and whatnot to spin things. Compact…” Alexi laughed again, shaking his head. “Though, I have to admit, I miss this wall.” He said, moving towards the poster-covered side of the room. “The room’s small. The house is small, but everything’s in order. My dad always liked order. Neat, conforming, fitting the norm. Everything in its place. This wall…It was the only bit of chaos in this house. It’s random. Images plastered on a wall. I’m not particularly a fan of more than half the things and people on here, but the posters themselves…they caught my eye. Hell, some of them are barely more than photos, not really posters, but I liked them. And the random way in which they fit together on this wall…It was my chaos. My refuge…”
Evan moved behind him and snaked his arms around him, pulling him into a hug, lowering his chin on Alexi’s shoulder. “I think it’s beautiful. Just like you.” And then he buried his face in Alexi’s neck, inhaling deeply and then gently kissing the soft, pale skin. Alexi closed his eyes and sighed his content.
“You sweet talker, you…”Alexi spoke softly. “But, as much as I enjoy this…” he said, then pulled away, turning to look into Evan’s eyes “…I came here for something specific. And I need to get it over with now.” There was steely determination in his tone and Evan found himself nodding in agreement.
“Do what you need to do. I’m here for you.”
Alexi exited his old bedroom and walked back down the hallway, Evan again never more than a step behind. When they finally reached the living room, Alexi froze, his eyes locked on the floor. Evan looked over his shoulder, following the younger boy’s gaze, towards the large dark stain on the carpet. No, there was more than one stain. Evan knew what it was immediately and he swallowed hard. He had seen more similar sights than he cared to remember. He saw the small dark spots towards the edges of the carpet. Spatter marks. Blood simply flying everywhere. The concentrated stains in the middle of the room told the story. Blood had pooled there. Lots of it.
“This is where my dad killed my mom and almost killed me…” Alexi said in a whisper. He was surprised to find no emotion in his voice. No anger. No pain. Not even disgust, as the images played in his mind again. Nothing.
“God, Alexi. I’m so sorry.” Evan said, placing his hands on Alexi’s shoulders. “I knew something happened to your parents, I mean, you are with a foster family and all, but I didn’t…I never imagined…”
“It’s alright. It’s funny, actually. I don’t know what I was expecting, coming here. Well, closure, I guess, but now that I’m here…I just don’t feel that fear and grief. I don’t even feel rage. None of the sentiments I felt while in the hospital. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve even managed to shake the stupid self-pity. And that’s mostly because of you…” Alexi said, leaning back against Evan once again, resting his head on his chest. “I don’t know, I guess I was afraid that letting some of those feelings go wasn’t normal. I wanted to come back to feel them again. To convince myself that they were justified and that I wouldn’t live to unearth them again years from now, only to drive myself crazy. Am I even making sense?”
“Yeah, you are. And you WERE justified to feel those things. Christ, Alexi, what your father did…I’d rip his fucking head off.” Evan spat. “You said you wanted closure. But you also said you seemed to have moved past this moment. I guess what you’re saying is that you’re afraid that you’re only burying these feelings, instead of confronting and accepting what happened and they might come back to haunt you again in the future.”
“Yeah. Exactly. And now that I’m here, I don’t think that’s what I’m doing. I expected those emotions to come flooding back in. But…nothing. I still feel a dull ache, remembering it all, but I’m calm now. At peace, in a way. I loved my mom. I’ll never forget her, and I’m not saying I accept what happened to her or brushing it aside easily, but…The Samuels, Hunter in particular, have shown me a lot of affection and I think I should count my blessings for that. For getting out of it all with my life, if not intact.” He spun around to face Evan. “And then there’s you…my guardian angel.” He said, grinning widely. “Coming here has reinforced what I felt these past few days. I’m…okay. Mad men tried to kill me, but, especially with you, I feel safe. And I feel loved. And that’s more than I could have hoped for when I was lying on that floor…”
Evan enveloped him in a tight hug, expressing his love and reassurance. “You ARE okay. You’re fucking wonderful, not just okay. And I’ll always keep you safe, got it?” He raised Alexi’s chin with a finger and placed a soft kiss on his lips. “Now, how ‘bout we see just how small that bed of yours REALLY is?” he asked with a mischievous grin when he pulled apart.
Eric was pacing back and forth in his small office, gripping his phone tightly. He was nervous. He had thought he was resolute about it. He knew it was what he had to do, after all. It was the only thing to be done, that much was clear. But after all these years, it was still hard. ‘No, you were always faithful. Always the trusted right-hand man. And then he disrespects you, with that damn fag. No, this is justified.’ Resolve flowed through him once more. Oh, yes, there was no going back. The cell he was holding started ringing and Eric answered immediately.
“Yes – I just got off the phone with him. He’ll be here on Monday, to scope the place out. – Yes, he’s good. – He’s been doing freelance work in Iraq. D’you want fucking references? I know the guy and he’s the best for the job. The fucking kid will be dead on Tuesday morning and you can snatch the other one. – Oh, I’ll take care of them, don’t worry. – Yes, we all stick to the gameplan and by this time next week, we’ll have everything under control. Keep in touch and see you on Tuesday, my friend.”
He turned off the phone, then threw it in the bin by his desk. No more indecision, no going back. It was HIS time now.