Looking up, Milan has a confused expression on his face, as if he just woke up again. "I'm sorry."
I shake my head. "Don't be sorry." It's cute, I add in my thoughts.
Nervously, I take a seat next to him, contemplating whether I really want to tell him how I feel. I was okay all this time. Of course I thought Milan was cute even before we crashed on the island, but I never meant to fall in love with him. For some reason I managed to see him as a friend. All of a sudden this changed, but it could change back just as abruptly, right?
"Something's wrong," Milan says.
Now it's my turn to look confused. "With the island, you mean?"
"With the island? How can an island be wrong?"
Shrugging, I reply: "I dunno. Maybe you have a feeling something bad is going to happen. I have that sometimes."
"Nah, I meant something is wrong with you."
He turns a little to face me better, even though we're still sitting next to each other. "Normally you're so talkative. You always wonder about things no one has the answers to. But now you're quiet."
"You were the one who completely ignored me earlier this week," I smirk. "And now you complain about me being silent." For a split second, I notice a hint of guilt on his face, but it's gone as fast as it appeared.
"I had a reason for that. A reason you were aware of."
"Not at first."
"We're not talking about that. I asked you a question: is something wrong?"
This is the perfect time to tell him, I know it. But, I also know what he thinks about gay people. Being honest with him could destroy the friendship we have. Do I want that? On the other hand, do I want a friendship with someone who cannot accept me the way I am? Why is this happening? I don't want this. It's the kind of dilemma you can either try to ignore or give in to, but you can never really solve it.
"I'm not sure. I think I've been wondering about the real world a lot, you know. About what life used to be." Alright… A lie. So much for being honest today. "I knew it. You're worrying again. You're good at that. Too good." He smiles and I feel an urge to kiss him right here and now. "We'll be alright, Ryan."
"You really believe that?"
"Yes. I do."
Without really thinking about it, I hug him. At first Milan doesn't move, but then he slowly hugs me back.
When we release the hug, Milan is still smiling. That's a good sign, isn't it?
"I don't even know anything about your life before the crash," I say.
Milan thinks about that for a second. "There isn't much to know. I was in school, in the honours program…"
"That doesn't surprise me," I interrupt him.
It causes him to grin. "And uhh, I'm not sure what else I could tell you about me."
"Did you have a girlfriend? Or boyfriend?"
He snickers. "No boyfriend of course, no. But that's really twenty-first century of you to add." He laughs again, and when his laugh has died out, he adds: "But yeah, I used to have… like, not really, but kinda… a girlfriend. Emily."
My heart stopped beating for a few seconds. "What's the 'not really' about it?"
Suddenly, his face takes on a bitter sweet expression, he looks nostalgic, as if remembering something. "I think it just didn't work out. We liked each other, but I didn't really love her. We're still friends, though."
For some reason I feel relieved. As if suddenly I do have a chance with him. Of course I don't.
"What about you?" he asks.
"Uhh," I stammer, pictures of Luke flashing through my mind. He never was my boyfriend, but we did share a little kiss when I was on holiday last year. It was the most intimate I ever was with another boy and since then, the doubt about my sexuality was completely gone. He had to leave the day after, so we never had a chance to kiss again. He was very cute and I really wanted to look him up after we got back, but I never did. I wonder if he knows I'm one of the people on the plane that crashed. I'm sure we must be all over the news now, right? "No, never had a girlfriend. Never even kissed a girl."
Milan grins. "You'd love it, dude!"
"So… What about your life before the crash?"
I look out over the vast ocean as if I expected to see my old life floating towards me. "I wasn't in any honours classes," I say absentmindedly. "I liked art. Wood carving, painting and playing the keyboard."
"Oh, you make music? Cool! What kind of music."
"Mostly classical. I love Ludovico Einaudi, for example. I tried to learn it on the keyboard."
"Cool! I never really listen to classical music, but I'm sure if I did, I'd like it. Isn't that Ludivico guy from Intouchable, the film?"
I laugh at his horrible French pronunciation, but at the same time I know I wouldn't have done better. It's somewhat disappointing that he doesn't listen to my kind of music, but maybe it helps me getting over the feeling of liking him. "Yeah, it is. The song Fly appears in the film. It's one of the best songs."
"I loved the film."
"I did as well. But hey, I think I'm going to bed soon." It's now or never, I think to myself. I can tell him how I feel and even if he doesn't feel the same, we could still be friends, right?
"I'll come soon. Goodnight, Ryan," he says and pulls me in for a hug.
A little baffled, I hug him back. Breathing is becoming difficult. This isn't just a bro hug, is it? It's too long. We break the hug, and I say: "Thanks, Milan. For the hug, for the talk and for being a friend. I needed that."
"No problem." He smiles.
Walking away, I turn around to look at him again; he's staring into the blackness of the sea. The proverbial stone in my stomach was gone for a few minutes, but the hug brought him back again. My heart is beating from the adrenaline I felt when I was thinking about telling him, so imagine how my body would react if I ever told him. Never have I had this much trouble with coming out to someone. It feels like there is so much at stake, even though I know I probably won't see him again after we get rescued. Does it really matter?
My spot between Kai and mom looks inviting, so without spending more time thinking about Milan, I snuggle in between them, put my arm around my favorite ten-year-old and fall asleep.
I wake up to Kai shouting: "Mom, we got a pack of crackers and some extra olives from Casey!"
"Sst, Kai. Some people in the camp are still asleep," mom whispers.
"Oh, I'm sorry."
After I open my eyes I need a few seconds looking at the ceiling of our hut, to get my brain warmed up. I turn around and see Milan rubbing his eyes. "Morning," I say with a rusty voice. I turn onto my stomach, my head resting on my arms.
He smiles. "Good choice to leave the "good" in "good morning" behind."
A chuckle leaves my lips. "There was a good, it was just more like a single "g". G'morning."
"Well, at least it didn’t deserve to be pronounced fully."
"Why? What's wrong?"
"Being woken by an enthusiastic kid screaming practically in your ear isn't what I'd call 'good'."
"Oh…" I hear from behind me. "I'm sorry, Milan."
Turning around, I notice the boy standing in the doorway, his posture doing nothing to hide his sadness.
"Oh, no, it was meant sarcastically," Milan says immediately. "I didn't mean it."
"Okay..." He doesn't look too convinced.
"Don't mind him, Kai. He is suffering from a well-known morning mood. I, for one, didn't mind waking up to your cool voice!"
The boy beams. "Yeah. Milan has morning mood."
Only now Kai says it, I hear how close 'morning mood' resembles 'morning wood'. Unwillingly an image of Milan's morning wood appears on my retina and a blush rises to my cheeks, but I shake it away immediately. No more crushing over the boy from now on!
We have breakfast together, after which Kai and my mom go to the improvised classroom, and Milan and I head over to our fishing area. It isn’t long before Trenton joins as well. His mom decided to stay with his sister, so he doesn't have to babysit today.
We have only caught one fish when Milan suddenly says: "I smell fire."
"You smell fire?" Trenton asks.
"Yeah, fire. Smoke." He looks around. "There!"
I turn around and notice a small trail of smoke curling upwards from somewhere close to the camp. "You're right."
"Let's check it out." Trenton reels in the line and puts the rod next to the rock we were sitting on. Together, like the three musketeers, we approach the danger.
Once we're closer to the camp, we can see some people already gathered around the source of the smoke, just behind our camp a few meters into the woods. We walk over there, I carefully push someone aside and find Ronny in the middle of all the commotion.
"I told you, there is nothing wrong! Just a stupid twig. I had it under control."
"Why did you even make a fire? Why are you in the forest. We told you not to!" Matthew Bachmeier looks furious, almost spitting fire himself. "And what is this hideous construction. You trying to be like the gay kid?"
I involuntarily flinch at the comment. Margareth gives a quick glance in my direction, probably to find out how much that hurt, but then looks at the misbehaving kid again.
Just behind Ronny is some weird contraption. A pit with a small fire in it, some metal tubes above it, with a metal container on top. I wonder where he got it from. The edges of the metal container are sealed off with mud and clay and a tube leads from the container towards an empty bottle. I didn't see at first, but there is water dripping from the tube into the bottle.
"You could have burned down the whole forest!" His right foot occasionally pounds on the earth, causing the construction to shake.
Ronny's face is deadly pale. The once so talkative boy, the confident bully, is reduced to nothing but a fearful doll. "I had it under control, dad," he stammers and coughs.
"No, you didn't. You risked our lives only to do… what exactly? Make this stupid thing? What does it even do?" He kicks the metal container, which tumbles over. All the water that had filled the container streams out.
I feel my hand being grabbed and without looking I know the school has joined us as well now. Then someone else grabs the other hand, so I peek, my heart pounding as I imagine it's Milan. It's not him, but one of Kai's friends, Noah.
Ronny is visibly sweating. "I… I was… distilling water." He swallows.
"You were what?! You have got to be kidding me!"
Oliver is watching, but he doesn't get involved. I may be wrong, but I feel like he is grinning. My mom quickly puts a hand on my shoulder, which by now is a gesture I know all too well. Then she walks right into the lion's den.
"Matthew," she almost whispers. "It's okay. We all make mistakes."
Within a second the man turns around and looks at my mom directly. If his eyes weren't spitting fire before, they surely are now. "This is MY son. We don't make mistakes." He looks at me holding the two boys hands, then at Milan and back at his son again. "Right now Ronny is a bigger disappointment than the son who's queering around with your son!"
Milan's eyes lock with mine, his face showing an apologetic look. As he turns back to the spectacle, he takes a step away from me. I think he didn't want me to notice, but I did. And it hurt. It hurt more than what his dad was saying about me in front of everyone.
Mom also looks at me, just like Margareth did earlier. As if she were trying to see how much the comment hurt and whether she had to defend me.
She doesn't. "He was trying to help, Matthew."
The man laughs. "Right. By doing exactly what Jan told us not to do." He turns his attention back to Ronny, which means he also turns his back to my mother.
The whole camp has gathered here, but no one knows what to do. I think we're all scared.
"Jan said that distilling water would cost too much time and wouldn't be safe. We don't know what shit is in the water!"
Ronny coughs again. "Jan was wrong." Tears are gathering in his eyes, waiting for the cue to be released. "Distilling isn't dangerous." He coughs.
"Have you been drinking the water?"
With a tear running down his cheek, he nods.
"So that's why you're sick. You're infected by whatever lives in the water. It's your own fault!"
"I can't be. I can't be." Ronny is crying and I wonder if it's because he knows he's right and not being understood, or because he believes his dad and fears for his health. "Distilling is perfectly safe. Jan was wrong."
The Bachmeier mom now stands behind her husband and puts her hand on his shoulder. "Your dad is right. You should listen to people who know better."
"He doesn't... know…" Again a cough. "He doesn't know better."
Seeing the boy cry, even after all the crap he has put me and Milan through, affects me. I feel a lump in my throat and I almost want to stand up for him. The resemblance between his dad and satan keeps me from getting involved, however.
"Why don't we just head back to the camp and talk about it together," mom offers.
"Shut up! I'm trying to teach my son to stop thinking he is better than the people around him. Keep out of it."
There was a complete study done about keeping humankind safe in the future from our nuclear waste. They sought a universal way in which to communicate the danger to people thousands of years later, when people wouldn't understand today’s languages and couldn't read a written warning. Well, looking at the situation right now, all they needed is a picture of Mathew, his eyes and expression, is the universal warning they need.
Mom seems to conclude the same thing, and a little resentfully takes a step back.
Milan's dad lashes out and kicks the bottle away. The supposedly purified water trickles out onto the earth. "Clean this shit and go to bed. No dinner for you."
"Matthew. Do you really think that's necessary?" Margareth asks.
The man just nods and walks away, leaving us all dumbfounded. The mom glances at both her sons once more and follows her husband. Milan rushes towards Ronny and puts an arm around his shoulder and guides him away, Kai and Noah let go of my hands and run away, with my mom following them as close as she can. Slowly, everyone leaves the danger zone. I'm still here, staring at the distillation setup. Does this mean that Ronny was trying to help us all this time by getting fresh water? That's why he was so mysterious about entering the forest.
The insults Matthew made today are echoing through my head and I feel tears in my eyes. Mom didn't defend me publicly and she didn't come to me to comfort me. It's as if she didn't even care.
And Milan… he deliberately took a step away from me when his dad spoke about him queering around with me. He distanced himself from me, not caring what I thought or felt. He'd rather hurt me than have his name in the same sentence as the word queer. That's the answer to my doubts, isn't it?
Does anyone care?
I run a few meters into the forest, making sure I'm completely out of sight of anyone in the camp, and sit down against a tree. Trying to figure out what - from all the things that happened today - actually hurt the most, I feel a tear escaping from the pool in my eyes.
I want to go home. So far, I have liked being on the island. I liked having to survive, getting to know all these people and starting to see them as a family. But people will always be people. They will only care about themselves. Except for Ronny, who apparently wanted to help, even though it was by thinking he's better than the rest.
I wipe the tears off my cheek with my shirt and remain silent, engulfed by the darkness of the forest. After a few minutes I hear someone behind me.
"Here you are," a whisper says.
My eyes are still red as I turn around. It's Milan. "Yeah?"
"Oh shit, you've been crying... Ryan, you shouldn't care about what my dad says. He can be an asshole sometimes. He says things that aren't true!"
There is the sting again. Not as big as when he stepped away, but still a sting that's able to destroy me from the inside out.
Milan walks over to me and crouches in front of me. "I'm sorry if my dad insulted you, really."
Looking at that face of his, the boy who doesn't even realise he is the one that hurt me more than his father's words ever could, I can literally feel something snap inside me. "He was right!" I practically spit it out.
"Huh?" He looks genuinely confused. Seriously, how stupid can one be?
"I'm a fucking queer!" I screech. Even though I so carefully wiped my face clean before, tears are streaming down again. "You - the Milan Bachmeier, first of his name or whatever - you have been queering around. With a fag. A gay boy, a homo. Please, I'm sure you know more names!"
He flinches and involuntarily takes a step back, all the while still crouching. I don't even care anymore whether he puts this distance between us because he's scared of my sudden outburst, or because he is disgusted by my sexuality.
"Where are your excuses now, hah?" I swallow as I put my hands in front of my eyes, crying into them. "Your dad didn't insult me," I continue, "you did, when you shied away from me when your dad said those nasty things about me."
"Oh, words. Finally."
"I'm sorry, Ryan. I just… I'm not sure… I uhh."
Slowly I allow a gap in between my fingers too look at his face. It's almost as pale as Ronny's was just half an hour ago.
"I think I have to go back." A second of silence. "To… uhh… check in with my brother."
"Go then. Leave me alone!"
"I'm sorry, Ryan. I really am." The boy leaves me. He doesn't just walk, no, he runs.
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