Alexi would never quite recall how that first day went. Shadows moved past him and he drifted through the halls. He attended classes and heard a buzzing sound in his head. It might have been his teachers. Or maybe it was just another sign of him going crazy. He certainly recognized the fact that he was feeling…loopy. That feeling didn’t abandon him through the day…or the rest of his life. Dizzy, light-headed and ecstatic. He didn’t want to admit it to himself, but he knew the reason. And that reason had the best smile Alexi had ever seen. And that made him feel nauseous just as much as he made him want to do summersaults. He couldn’t allow it to happen. Not again. He knew something was wrong with him. He wasn’t convinced anything could be done about it. But he was resolute in that he would not let it get in the way of making a new life for himself. He would confront his demons someday. Just not now, that he had been given a second chance. But the demons he pictured had that darn cute smile and he just couldn’t put them out of his head. He supposed that it made sense. In his case, the road to hell was paved with pleasant smiles. Demons are supposed to be good at their job, he thought. Corrupting people. Well, they sure knew how to corrupt him. Alexi sighed deeply, in a melancholic way and Evan’s features disappeared to be replaced by those of a scowling, middle-aged, overweight and generally unpleasant Math teacher. The giggling from the rest of the class only served to further ground Alexi. Maybe it was for the best, he thought.
“Mr. Tupolov, again, may I ask you to please stop daydreaming of forbidden love in my class?”
Alexi went pale. Well, even more pale than he was. Truth be told, he was turning a shade of yellow that might otherwise have caused concern with the CDC over the appearance of a deadly plague. He was too horrified to blush. He was too terrified to breathe.
Mr. Sanders raised an eyebrow, then finally rolled his eyes at Alexi.
“Oh, please, don’t have a heart attack on my account. Listen, I’ve been teaching for 20 years and I was actually a student once. I know what goes through your perverted little minds.” He scowled at the whole classroom. “But please, refrain from popping boners in my class and all will be well.”
Alexi remembered how to blush. But his color control seemed to be off, because he bypassed red and went straight to purple. He shifted nervously in his seat. He was pretty sure he hadn’t had an erection. Certainly, judging by the color of his face, it was hard to imagine that there was enough blood left in his body for that.
“Christ, I hate teenagers.” Mr. Sanders said, turning his back to the class and shaking his head. “And you can report me for saying that. See if I care…you little shitheads.” The teacher leaned against his desk and sighed dejectedly. “Back to the lesson…for all the good it’ll do ya.”
Alexi was dumbstruck at his teacher’s behavior but, judging from the lack of outrage or, really, any response from the rest of the class, he surmised this was routine business. Pretty much everyone either ignored Alexi that day or limited themselves to whispers and sidelong glances, so that class was pretty much the only thing that stood out for him that first day. Well, that and Evan. Evan, whom Alexi didn’t see at all for the rest of the day. Not in the flesh, anyway. As soon as he had helped Alexi into the main school building, he just grasped his hand in an enthusiastic manner, shook, smiled broadly and left without another word. Which was all the more reason for Alexi to be confused. Why did such a short amount of time in Evan’s company stir such a response from Alexi? He was never very astute at observing, let alone understanding complex emotional responses. In fact, he had often been called “cold-hearted”. That he wasn’t. Alexi was sure of that. He wasn’t a bad person. Was he? He just always stood mostly alone, away from prying eyes and judgmental stares. Then again, he had mostly chosen isolation because he was convinced something was wrong with him. So, if deep inside he felt rotten, if he pictured himself as a worm-infested apple, a blemish on the face of the Earth, how could he ever expect others to see him as anything else?
Such were his thoughts when he walked out of the school. His spirit wasn’t lifted any when he saw Vince standing on the curb, next to the town car. But if nothing else, the uneasiness he felt around the big man would help Alexi take his mind off other matters. Besides, he had long ago decided that judging a book by its cover was never a good thing. Unless it was Twilight. He knew that would suck from the moment he first set eyes upon it. But sparkling vampires were a matter for another day. Now he was ready to get to know Vince, a man who, for all intents and purposes, had the Samuels’ respect and even their affection.
So, he plastered a huge grin on his face and said hello to the man in his most convincing fake-enthusiastic voice. The growl Vince gave in response wasn’t very encouraging, but Alexi wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
Two hours later, he was ready to give up. The man was as engaging as a statue and far more unnerving to look at. When they pulled up in front of the house, Alexi got his new laptop from the backseat, thanked Vince for his assistance and turned towards the house. He took a few steps, but the gaze he felt borrowing into the back of his skull stopped him in his tracks. He turned around and met Vince’s eyes. They were locked together and Alexi half-expected a soul gaze to begin. He just wasn’t sure Vince had a soul. Alexi blinked first and looked down at the ground.
“Do you not like me, Vince?” he asked. He wasn’t sure what persuaded him to ask that. He almost wanted to kick himself in the head. “Christ Almighty, why do I need reassurance from this guy?” he asked himself.
From behind the steering wheel, Vince kept on staring right through Alexi, then he turned the key in the ignition and backed out of the driveway. Alexi still wasn’t sure that he had ever seen Vince blink. He might be like a part of the family for the Samuels, but he wanted to stay as far away from him as possible. He went to his room and immediately took out his new computer. He was pleasantly surprised to see the wireless connection was working perfectly and he immediately started surfing the Internet. He knew exactly which sites he wanted to visit, but he restrained himself. So, naturally, he got bored fast. Without any real friends to contact and no desire to troll on some helpless message board, there really was only one thing Alexi could do on-line – pretty much the reason why God invented it in the first place. But he stubbornly put it out of his mind, shut off the computer and decided a nap would do him well.
When he woke up, it was dark outside, but his room was bathed in a soothing light coming from the hallway outside. Wait, what? Why was his door open? “Deja-vu” he said to himself, as his eyes drifted to the desk chair where Hunter was seated. But now he didn’t flinch. He had promised both himself and Dana that he’d see this through. And, hell, Hunter had come to HIS room. Initiating contact was a good sign, no? Unless Hunter had finally decided dislike beats pity and thought a baseball game was in order afterall. The calm manner in which this thought came to Alexi surprised him. “You’re not hiding under the bed scared shitless. That’s progress. I really need to pat myself on the back if I can still use my hands after this is over” he thought.
The two boys sat quietly for a while. Hunter in the chair, Alexi cross-legged on the bed opposite him. Alexi was pretty sure Hunter wasn’t going to hurt him. Unless he took some sick pleasure from seeing his potential victim squirm before actually acting. “Good job, Alexi. Keep up the optimism!” Alexi decided the only way he could avoid those kinds of feelings was to finally get it over with. Break the ice and hope Hunter doesn’t drop him in the hole to watch him drown.
“Hunter…I’m sorry. I didn’t…”
“Why do you do that?”
“What?” Alexi said startled.
“Apologize for things that aren’t your fault. Even when you thought I was…I was going to hurt you…” Hunter turned away from Alexi for a few moments, then plowed straight ahead. “Even then, you apologized to my parents for freaking out.”
“They told you that?” Alexi groaned. Hunter simply nodded. Alexi shrugged. “I dunno. The way I was…raised.” “Trained” was a better word, he thought. “But, really, I AM sorry. Not about being here, because this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’ve only been here for a few days, but it’s more than enough to know I should be counting my blessings.”
“Yeah…You’re a real lucky guy. God blessed you with a magnificent foster family after your father almost beat you to death. Maybe you should play the lottery next.” Hunter knew it was the worst thing he could say, yet he still couldn’t stop himself from uttering those words. He couldn’t help but feel pleasure when he saw Alexi catch his breath and close his eyes in pain. And at the same time, he couldn’t help but feel disgusted with himself for trying to inflict pain on someone who’s already been through so much. Someone he barely knew. Yet, how dare Alexi look so much like his brother? And how dare he try to take his place? And again his father’s words hit him. “How dare I turn him away?” was his thought as he strode to the bed and sat down. Tentatively, he reached out for Alexi.
When Hunter threw those words at him, Alexi felt it like a physical blow. But he didn’t break down and cry. Not again, he had decided. He simply closed his eyes, in order to prevent any tears slipping down his cheeks and breathed in. He suddenly felt Hunter’s arm on his shoulder. His first instinct was to jump up and run. Alarm bells were ringing in his head. But there was a voice inside him that overwhelmed even their noise. “DO. NOT. MOVE!” So he stayed put and accepted the weight now resting on his shoulder. “Good. Love and time, remember? Add will to that. Stay strong and let him in, if you ever want him to do the same for you.” Well, who was he to argue with his inner monologue?
Hunter moved his hand from Alexi’s left shoulder an instant later. He didn’t want to see him flinch again, even as that small part of him still kept egging him on. “Do it. Kick his crippled ass. He doesn’t belong here!”. He just closed his eyes and shook his head, putting his hands in his lap. When he opened his eyes, he focused on the floor, his hands now restless and fidgeting. He reached for his reserves of courage and found enough to open his mouth. “Look…”
“I really AM, you know…” Alexi spoke first. “Sorry, I mean. Now, please, I have to get this out of me, so don’t start with the apology crap.” He said, as he watched Hunter close his mouth and clench his teeth audibly. He permitted himself an almost undetectable smile. “You lost your brother. I can’t even imagine what that might be like…”
“Please, Hunter. Let me finish while I still have the nerve to do so.” He took Hunter’s silence as encouragement to continue. “I mean…My mom is dead and my dad…” he couldn’t stop a shudder running through him. “I lost my family, but I was never close to them. Not really. I never really even realized how much my mom loved me until the day she died. So, losing someone as close as your brother was to you…No, I couldn’t imagine that. Heck, I’ve never even had a best friend. And for me to come in to your home like this, I know how that must make you feel. But I’m not here to replace him, Hunter. I could never do that. I would like to be your friend and a part of this family, but I know I could never be him. And I know how that pains you even more. If I were as good as him, then you’d at least have a worthy replacement, as fucked up as that sounds. But instead, you’re stuck with me. A miserable excuse for a human being, who could never live up to him. And I’m sorry you’re stuck with me. But I know I could be at least a good enough friend if you gave me a chance. Please?” He hadn’t looked at all at Hunter as he spoke, but instead kept his focus on the wall in front of him. Now he chanced a glance at the boy sitting next to him. And he saw tears running silently down his face.
“I just miss him so much!” And the dam was broken. Hunter was now sobbing. Shaking, heaving, pouring out the pain he had bottled up inside him for years. Alexi reacted the only way he knew how. He grabbed him into a tight hug and supported his weight as the tears kept wetting the collar of his shirt, Hunter’s head hanging on Alexi’s shoulder. He sucked at this. Man, he had had so many breakdowns and cried so much he often wondered if there was any liquid left in his body. Yet he didn’t know how to comfort another person in that situation. So he simply patted Hunter on the head and felt like a retard.
“And you look so much like him. It just isn’t fair! I’m sorry, Alexi.” Hunter said, breaking the hug and straightening himself up a bit. I know how horrible it must sound, but looking at you…”
“You wonder why I’m alive and he’s dead…” Alexi sad softly.
“YES! It just isn’t fair!”
“Please…tell me about him.”
Hunter wiped away at the tears and managed a small smile. “He was the best brother a guy could hope for. I was 3 when the Samuels took me in. By the time the adoption went through, I was old enough to understand I was not their real son. And, of course, so did Bran. But he didn’t care. He made taking care of me his goal in life, it seemed. He took me everywhere with him. His friends were my friends, his clothes, his toys, his pain and his joy. He shared it all with me and I soaked up the love he gave me. I know it’s weird saying it, considering how young he was when…But he was just the kind of person you knew you wanted to be around even at that age. The kind of person people see as a leader and a source of strength. He was…everything to me. And then he was gone. And I didn’t…I never…I don’t think he ever understood how much I adored him. How much he meant to me. “ He seemed on the verge of tears once more.
“Of course he knew. I’m sure you meant the world to him as well. He loved you.”
Hunter smiled bitterly. “Looking at you…It’s like I’m staring at a ghost.”
“Well, then, maybe we’re some kind of kindred spirit. So, take my word for it. He loved you and he knew how much you loved him as well.”
Hunter reached for his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. He then took out a photo. It was crumpled and folded over and over and stained. Alexi could imagine Hunter staring at that photo in the dead of night, tears falling and wetting the picture. He saw two young kids. There was no mistaking Hunter and his blond hair and piercing blue eyes. Crouched down next to him, smiling up at the camera was…Well, Brandon, he assumed. But it was as if he was looking back on a picture of a younger self. Maybe 12. Those green eyes that spoke of endless fields, that black messy hair. The slight tan and big smile. The prominent chin and elfish ears. But there was also something about him that Alexi was sure he never possessed. Some confidence that exuded from Brandon. It radiated from him, even through that battered photo. He suddenly felt overwhelm with emotion.
“Crap, I’m gonna cry again. I swear, it’s like I sprung a leak these days or something.” Both boys started laughing even as tears mingled with their bubbling laughter. “And, even if it’s not much…I’m gonna cut my hair short. I like that way anyway and…it’ll reduce the similarity.” Both boys grew quiet and serious once more. “And, Hunter, I meant what I said. I know I’m just a shitty knock-off of the original, but I do hope we can be friends.”
“Don’t do that anymore.”
“Put yourself down like that. You’re not worthless. I hoped you were, you know, at first. Heck, I thought you were. It made me easier for me to hate you. But you’re not. There’s something to you…I know you’re a good person, Alexi. And I do want to get to know you better. Friends…Even brothers. I’d liked that.” And Hunter knew he meant it. The voice inside him was quiet. There was no more hatred. He looked at the boy sitting next to him and knew he was a good soul. He knew he would rather suffer himself that see him in pain again. He knew he could grow to love him. He knew he could open up once more and find a brother. He knew they could lean on each other for support. And every fiber of his being told him he was at peace.
“Thank you. For saying that. Christ, again with the crying. I’d be bawling my eyes out right now but I guess that well’s run dry. I may drop dead of dehydration any second now.” And again they laughed until they fell into a comfortable silence and finally an easy discussion. They talked for hours. It was only their growling stomachs that finally put an end to their conversation.
“Damn. It’s 11 PM! What ever happened to dinner? I don’t think dad came home yet.” Hunter observed, a slightly nervous tone in his voice.
“Oh, I’m sure he got swamped at the office or something. That flower business is nerve-wracking, time-consuming stuff, eh?” Alexi chuckled and Hunter couldn’t help but giggle. “D’you think it’d be okay if we order pizza? Ummm…I don’t really have any money, but I’ll pay you back..”
“Oh, the rents always leave money in the house for just such an occasion. It won’t be a problem. There’s a pizza joint open 24/7, so that shouldn’t be a problem either.”
The boys got up off the bed and Hunter handed Alexi his cane. They both started making their way out the room, Hunter leading the way. He suddenly stopped and turned around to face Alexi.
“I almost forgot. Saw you this morning. At school.”
Alexi frowned slightly. He didn’t understand where this was going. “Yeah?”
“With that Evan kid.”
Now Alexi’s brows shut up and threatened to leave his head altogether. “Mhm…”
“You need to watch out for him. He’s a fag.”
Alexi was once again dumbstruck. He was gay? Was that why he had that mischievous grin on him? Then he reeled. “Wait. What? How do you know?”
“He hit on me last year when he transferred to our school. He’s like 19 or something, but he’s only a junior. Seems he had some kind of health issues for a few years. Probably chocked on a dick or something.”
The bottom fell from under Alexi. Once again, he found himself swaying and not even his cane was enough. He collapsed on the floor. “Oh, what’s the use?” he asked in a whisper.
Hunter had kneeled down by him in an instant and was now looking worriedly at him. “What do you mean?”
“I told myself that this time I’d get it right. I wouldn’t mess up again. I’d be good, I told myself. I can hold it together, restrain myself, be a good member of this family. But then this morning Evan came along. And I knew I couldn’t I knew I’d only be lying to myself. And I can’t do that anymore. And I can’t lie to you either. Not after tonight, not after we had that connection, you know?” Hunter just shook his head, confusion plain on his face. “And now I know how you feel, but I just can’t anymore. I have no strength left in me to lie my way through life anymore. No matter what happens, I just come back around to this again. But maybe this time you’ll finish the job that my father started.”
Hunter recoiled, startled at Alexi’s words. “What are you on about? Don’t talk like that! Don’t be crazy!”
“I’m gay, Hunter. A fag. A queer. A fairy. A cock sucker. A poofter. Bent. Get out your thesaurus and pick a word…Then you might as well go ahead and kill me, since my life is over anyway…for a second time.”
“What? Why would I do that?”
“Seriously? Guess I could come up with a few more synonyms, but didn’t the whole ‘gay’ thing pretty much cover it?”
“SO?!” Alexi was incredulous. “I heard what you said about Evan and the disgust in your voice.”
“Oh, come on, man. You know how teenage boys are. Always defensive about their sexuality. We’re very proactive, making sure no one even thinks that we’d be…you know. I only said those things because I didn’t want to appear weak in front of you once you learned about Evan. You know…Ummm…”
“THAT DOESN’T MAKE ANY GODDAMN SENSE!”
“I KNOW! I’m a teenager! I told you already. Of course it doesn’t make any bloody sense!” Hunter was now shifting nervously in place. “What I’m saying is that it doesn’t really matter to me. I mean, not in private, anyway. I don’t care what gets you off. I…I just want you to be happy. I know now that you’re a great guy. You deserve to be happy.”
Alexi just sat on the floor silently, still expecting Hunter to jump him any second. “I…I don’t get it.”
“What don’t you get?”
“People hate fags. God hates fags. We deserve to die.”
“What? Who told you that crap?”
“What?!” Hunter’s eyes widened in shock. “Is that why he tried to kill you?”
“Y-y-yes.” Alexi stuttered. “You need to understand. It’s not really his fault. It’s the way he was brought up.”
“Don’t defend that piece of crap! What he did was inexcusable.”
“But…See, he’s very religious. He’s Russian. He came here soon after the fall of communism In Eastern Europe. He met a woman soon after. An American. My mom. She loved him a lot, I could always tell. But he could be a hard man. Again, it’s just the way he was brought up. He…he would beat me sometimes. And my mom. But it wasn’t all that bad. It was to keep me in check, he would say. At times I hated him and my mom because she wouldn’t stand up to him. But I understand that he had my best interest in mind…”
“Christ Almighty, Alexi, he sure did a number on you.” Hunter said, now sitting on the floor next to Alexi. He grabbed his hand and squeezed tightly. “Can’t you see? His abuse ran deeper than just your body. You’re fucking defending him! HE TRIED TO KILL YOU! He killed your mom!”
“My mom…” Alexi seemed to snap back to himself. “I told you how I blamed her at times and didn’t even think she loved me. Well, as I grew up and realized that I was…gay…I started, you know, looking for porn and all kinds of things…” Alexi said, blushing. “Well, she found some magazines and confronted me. I just couldn’t deny it. And, truth be told, I was so mad at her, that the anger made me defiant. But she…she just hugged me and told me we needed to run from my dad. Made sure he never found out. We…we were packing when he came in that day, drunk. He had lost his job. When he saw us, he snapped. He started beating my mom. He thought she was having an affair and wanted to leave him. So, I just…I told him it was because of me. That I was gay and he should just take it out on me. And he did. He hit me. Over and over again. First with his fists, then with a baseball bat. The last thing I remember before waking up in the hospital is my mom kneeling in from of him, begging for my life. Then he hit her…” Alexi shuddered. If he had any more tears left in him, they would not come. The shock of that memory burned and dried up any feeling he had left. He was numb and he simply slumped into Hunter’s warm embrace.
“Oh, Alexi. Oh, God…Its alright now. I have you.”
The two boys sat there on the floor for what seemed like an eternity, Hunter all the while softly stroking Alexi’s hair. Then Hunter suddenly realized by Alexi’s regular breathing that he had fallen asleep, consumed by the recollection of events. He wanted to get him in bed, yet he wasn’t sure he would manage without waking him up. So, he decided to simply rest his sleeping form against the side of the bed for a few minutes, while he called his parents, to tell them of what Alexi said to him. It was obvious to Hunter that Alexi needed to talk to a specialist or the pain would consume him from within. He had barely gotten to his feet when the sound of cars pulling up attracted his attention.
He moved to the window and he saw 3 cars outside. The usual town car his dad used, and two menacing looking black SUVs. Hunter’s mother got out of the town car and by the sound of her voice, she seemed to be arguing with someone, even if Hunter couldn’t quite make out the words. His dad next stepped out of the car and Vince got out from behind the wheel. Dana turned in her tracks towards the front door and gestured wildly both at her husband and Vince. The words that came with the gestures apparently weren’t very family-friendly, judging by the look on Sam’s face. Dana came into the house and slammed the door behind her. Hunter tip-toed to the bedroom door and cracked it open just enough so he could hear his dad come in.
“He went after you! We can’t let that happen!” Sam said in a fairly loud voice.
“Oh, NOW you’re concerned!” in a hoarse whisper. “And keep it down. The boys are probably asleep. And if they’re not, we don’t want them hearing this.”
“Maybe they should. Hunter’s gonna have to learn about it sooner or later and if Alexi’s gonna be a part of this family…”
“NO!” Dana screamed. “I will not have them exposed to that kind of danger.” Danger? The whole conversation had piqued Hunter’s interest, but this almost made him gasp.
“They already ARE in danger! For God’s sake, they almost killed you tonight, Dana. I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you or Hunter. Or even Alexi. It’d be like losing Bran all over again.”
The front door opened again and Vince walked in. “Mrs. S., you need to…”
“I don’t need to do shit, Vince. Get out. I’m handling it MY way! Do you understand? Both of you! Now I’m going to take a shower and wash this blood off. Vince, get out, I said.”
“Very well.” And Vince was gone.
The sound of footsteps echoed away as Dana moved towards the bathroom and Sam was left standing in the hallway, pondering the future.
“Blood? Someone went after mom? What the fuck is going on here?” Hunter was thinking out loud.
Alexi stirred and opened his eyes. “Hunter? What’s wrong?”
“I wish I knew, buddy. I wish I knew.” Hunter responded, a concerned look on his face.