Towards the Decent Inn

XVI

By Michael Arram

Rather than wait for the results, Matt decided to use his freedom. He rang up the British Airways desk at Heathrow, gave his code, and reserved a seat on a flight to New York for the next Saturday. He then e-mailed Andy with news that he was on his way. There was no reply, despite the fact that Matt knew he would still be at Burnett for a week. The next day he rang. There was no answer, only the soft burr of an American telephone signal and a recorded message in Minnie's voice: 'Hi. Jim, Lewis, Minnie and Andy aren't home at the moment, leave a message after the tone ...' Matt did, but there was no response. The next day came; still no reply, still no answer on the phone.

It was Paul who found out why. He came up behind Matt late on Friday afternoon, and said quietly. 'I don't want you to worry, but there's been an accident.'

'What!'

'He's OK ... he's fine. He's in hospital but he'll be alright.'

Matt's soul lurched. 'What happened.'

'Andy was driving with some of his odious mates. I think it was Fred and some of his other cronies. He came too fast out of an intersection and crunched another car. One of the guys in his car, the guy behind him, didn't come out of it too well. He's on life support. I think it was Fred. The really bad thing is that a kid in the other car was killed. A little boy. The rest of the family was pretty messed up too. Andy was breathalysed and he was found to be driving under the influence. He's on bail.'

'Oh my God. How did you find out?'

'Rachel just told me. She was just back from the hospital, and she was the only one there for him, the rest of the bastards have disappeared.'

'I'm flying out tomorrow.'

'And I'm coming too. You're not facing this on your own.'

Paul drove them both to Heathrow and they left the car in long-term parking. They said barely anything to each other. Matt was imagining Andy, crushed under guilt. He loved his little brother and sister, now he'd been responsible for cutting short a young life. What would it do to his tender nature? Paul was still giving him sidelong looks. Matt dozed and stared unseeing out the plane window. They flew this time to Salonica County Airport, where Rachel was waiting. She flung herself on Paul, and Matt had to wait a good two minutes to be noticed. She hugged him too, and got them into her car. They drove straight to the University medical center.

Andy was closed in a private ward. They kicked their heels outside, Matt in a state of high anxiety. Eventually the door opened and Matt found himself face to face with Richard Peacher, coming out and buttoning up his coat. He was as surprised to see Matt as Matt was to see him. But he recovered first, closing the door behind him quickly. He beckoned.

'Young man, a moment of your time.' Matt nodded and followed in his wake. They stood in a corridor high up in the modern building, it smelled threateningly of chemicals and disinfectant.

'How is he, sir?' Matt fell into Andy's speech habits around his father.

'Bad. Oh, I don't mean bad physically. He's bruised, has broken ribs and concussion, but he'll be fine in a few weeks. But ... and this claim will probably surprise you ... I know my boy. He'll never recover from the child's death, and it's damage that'll run deep. I can do some things. I can reach a settlement with the family, and I can shield him from some of the consequences of the law. But in the tribunal of his mind, he'll put himself into prison for life with hard labour and no remission.'

The older man stood dark and pensive. 'This is not the way that I had hoped things would turn out for him when he left Britain. I won't hide the fact that I was glad to see him separated from you, as much as from his mother. It would be a second chance for me to be the father I never was when he was a boy. But he was never happy here. Did you know this is the third time we've been called over to sort out problems? First it was possession of drugs on campus ... he only barely escaped expulsion on a technicality. Then a fortnight ago, another student caught in possession accused him of supplying cocaine in an attempted plea bargain. The local police had him under interrogation, turned over his house and found soft drugs which he denied were his, then surveillance, and then ... this disaster. Drug-dealing is a federal offence. The district attorney is very keen to get him before a grand jury, and his bail-bond, believe me, was phenomenal. He seems to be following the script of the self-destructive rich kid. The press certainly think so.'

'I didn't know any of this, sir.'

'I know, son, I know. I can't blame any of this on you. I was deeply upset when Ellie told me the nature of your relationship with my boy. I felt I had failed as a father. I still do. God knows I was never there for him when he was younger. His mother made sure of that. She poisoned his mind. You know her? No? Crazy woman. He was no more than a way for her to get at me. I was half glad when the press made England too hot to hold him. But look what happened ...'

'Anything I can do ...'

'Was he happy with you, son?'

'Yes sir, yes he was. I'm sure of that. I've never been so happy in all my life. I think now that I never will be so happy again, and I'm sorry for it. But I want to be with him now.'

Richard Peacher looked him keenly in the eye, then withdrew his right hand from his pocket and offered it. Matt gripped it hard with both hands, guessing at the cost of the gesture to the older man. 'You're a good-hearted kid, and your parents should be proud of you. I don't understand the way the world is going, but I'm not so blinkered that I can't work out who the good guys are. Call this my parental blessing on you and Andy if you like. Whatever Ellie says, I think that you alone may be able to help him, hard though it is for me to accept it. I'm sorry for the things I thought and said about you. Do what you can for my boy.' He turned and slowly paced away, without a backward look.

Matt looked sadly after him. He walked slowly back to Andy's door. Paul and Rachel were standing there hand in hand. He knocked and went in. Andy was sitting up. His face was a purple and red swollen mess, his chest was tightly bound with bandages. He was tied up to a drip. His eyes were worst: unblinking, desperate and desolate. He did not look like a man it was safe to leave alone. Matt sat on the end of his bed, and said nothing. They looked at each other for a long time. Slowly, Andy's eyes filled and brimmed over. Matt could do nothing but take and gently hold his hand. The tears dripped unchecked and uncheckable. Painful sobs convulsed his battered chest. For twenty minutes he cried until he subsided into an exhausted sleep.

Matt nestled next to him and wished he could hold him, but he suspected that would be unwise. He went out to Paul and Rachel, sitting patiently outside the door. He told them to go and to come back and check later, to have a meal or something. He would stay. And stay he did, sitting in a chair smiling at the nurses who came in quietly to check on Andy, and dozing off the effects of the flight. He prayed a lot, off and on, to his God, who healed the wretched and pitied even the wealthy. Finally he woke, a little after midnight. It was dark outside, and he could hear the distant chimes of the campanile. In the dimmed light, Andy was awake and looking at him. His face was fixed. He lisped slightly through his swollen lips.

'You know the worst thing?'

'What, love?'

'I saw the kid looking at me as the car crashed into him. Didn't even look surprised, as if he was watching some sort of computer game or TV programme. Then he disappeared. I hope it was quick for him.'

'What happened, Andy?'

'You know what happened, I was pissed, shouting at the guys behind me, and I hit the gas pedal instead of the brake. At least that's what the cops think. How's Fred?'

'Alas poor Fred. Not dead, at least. Last I heard they thought he'd pull through, but his football playing days may be over. Still, he's out of intensive care.'

Andy sat quietly. There didn't seem much to say. Matt lay down next to him, and after a while drifted off again. He awoke an hour or two later, and Andy's sleeping head was on his shoulder. A sad echo of a now distant happiness rose to haunt him. They were both awake when the sun rose.

'How can you love me?' Andy eventually said.

'It's very easy, y'know. When we were lying together that first night, when you were so sweet and loving, I knew that it was more than just sex, there could never be anyone else for me. Don't ask me how I knew, it was like in our videos, I just knew. And I was not wrong. I'm only happy when I'm right here next to you. Shit that happens to you, happens to me too. It was a mistake for me not to have followed you across the Atlantic when you did your runner.'

'Matt ... when I ran I was running from you as much as the press. You wouldn't have found me. I was blaming all the complications, all the stress on you, in part. It wasn't fair, it wasn't nice, but you were part of everything hateful that was happening to me. I spent the summer pretending I was someone else, someone who lived on private yachts and had dinner with beautiful people in tuxedos and evening dresses in film stars' houses, someone to whom shit could not conceivably happen. But I opened the envelope with Paul's results in, and reality grabbed me again. And I loved you then, the way you should be loved. But it was too late. It's too late now.'

'No,' answered Matt firmly. 'OK. The past is gone, whatever was good in it will never come back, and we're different people now. I know that as well as you do. We were aways going to change, it's the way of the world. But that's no reason for thinking that nothing lies ahead of us and that we should forget what we had and go our ways. That's just stupid; just because things have changed doesn't mean we still can't love each other. Don't go down the hard road on your own, Andy. I can walk it with you.'

'It's gonna get a lot harder.'

'I want to know about it. I talked to your dad. He said that you've been doing drugs. I know you and Rosso were indulging in the sickly weed. But from what your dad said you've been using worse stuff than that.'

Andy's eyes fell. 'It started before Christmas. You remember the day I was supposed to pick you up at Syracuse and didn't show.'

'Could I forget? Minnie hinted that your innocent boating trip was not so innocent. She said that Chuck liked sailing the lake with a boat full of booze: let me guess, Chuck was dealing too.'

'Chuck hangs around the rich kids and supplies their little necessities. He was all over me as soon as he could get Jim to arrange an introduction. Jim was one of his best customers, and he'd turned him into a bit of a pimp. Jim doesn't get as much from his father as he wants, so he needs the discounts. Well, I know all this now. I was bright-eyed and innocent for the first couple of months, and Jimmy Rosso was my big new American pal. What a sucker I was. He was...,' and Andy's eyes dropped, '... he was my new Matt, my friend and protector. Just as well he's straight, isn't it, or you'd have even more reasons to hate him.'

'Bloody Alpha males... never trusted them myself,' Matt interjected

Andy gave a pale smile 'Everybody was so friendly here, and life was one big long party: the Peacher name gets you anywhere in the States. The guys I was hanging out with had been smoking cannabis since they were in junior high, so that became normal. You didn't approve though, did you?'

'No, I didn't. And don't tell me that you really approved of it yourself, 'cos deep down I could tell you were uncomfortable.'

Andy continued, 'The boat party day was the day Chuck was going to move on me, I guess. He and his more wired-up mates more or less kidnapped me, promising they'd have me back on shore in plenty of time. All a big joke. I laid off the beer, but didn't turn down the smokes. We were way down the lake when the white lines were laid along the cabin table, and Jim and his mates started snorting. I think they were freebees laid on by Chuck in the hopes I'd succumb. I didn't. In fact I was a bit shocked, I'd never seen serious drug use before. Time was getting on and I was fretting despite the weed. But by then they were all stoned, talking bollocks loudly, and the only way I could get to shore was by starting the motor and steering for the right bank. They thought it was hilarious when we grounded in some reeds. I jumped over into the mud. It was freezing, but I got to the road and hitched back to Salonica with them shouting behind me from the boat. Course, by then it was all too late.

When I'd picked you up next day and brought you back, Chuck and his minions were at the place making their apologies. Jim was brokering a peace for them. But I was pretty pissed at them at the time.'

Matt interjected, 'They'd identified me as a danger, hadn't they?'

'Oh yes. Jim and Chuck were dead worried about you. You were a distraction. They were doing all they could to separate us, but it wasn't easy. They knew I was gay and that we had been lovers. At the time, they had no strategy for dealing with that.'

Matt sat up, 'At the time ... what d'you mean?'

Andy ploughed on, 'I told you it was going to get harder, and you're not going to like the next bit. They knew I was lonely and Chuck is nothing if not resourceful. One of his clients was a really pretty young sophomore, a gentle, stupid sort of kid. No money but a big addiction. He started appearing around at weekends with Chuck, and by their jokes it was made clear to me that he was gay. I felt sorry for him. No. I'll tell the truth, he was vulnerable and beautiful and I felt friendly to him; we were both outsiders.

One day in March, I woke up with him naked next to me. I'd fallen into bed after a party. He'd undressed and sneaked in next to me. When I woke up he was gingerly playing with my stiff cock. He actually apologised before I kissed him. I couldn't stop myself. It'd been two months since you left and I was so very lonely. A few days with you had made me realise what a fool I'd been to leave you. I hated myself. Next thing I was on top of his back and working inside him, first with my fingers then my cock. That's when I should have gotten suspicious. For all their hints, he'd never done it with another man before. He said he'd always wanted to have gay sex and had been waiting to come out. Load of bollocks, he was no more than a prostitute working for Chuck. Well, I know that now.

We did it quite a few times, enough for me to learn to hate myself really badly. The first time Chuck had given him enough to make him high and not really care. He cried the second time. But he said he was just mixed up, and he really wanted it. Nuts. He had just gone as low as a human being can go, and he knew it. I should have known it too, but he was very desirable and I was very lonely. So we got into a routine. He was always a bottom. He didn't seem to know he had a choice, especially with me. It was not like any sex we ever had: in fact that was what it was, making sex, not love. I felt dirty afterwards, and I knew I had betrayed you. But Chuck had won. He had isolated me and made me vulnerable, and one day some weeks later, when I was absolutely wretched, me and Phil Esposito - that's the boy's name - shared some lines he'd laid. Do y'know, we had sex straight after, and it was great. I was bursting with power and confidence. Cocaine can do that.'

So it was all a matter of sex and drugs. Chuck started making money from me, and Jim helped all he could. Phil went off and had a high time with the pay off he got from Chuck. Wouldn't come near me once I was hooked, so I lost even that consolation. The police picked him up a few weeks ago and rather than take Chuck down with him, he accused me of being his supplier. He must really have hated what I did to him.' Andy fell silent.

'How long have you been addicted? I suppose you haven't given it up.'

'I wasn't high the night of the crash. I hadn't touched the stuff much for a couple of weeks. The police had scared me when they turned the house over and interrogated me, and they were watching me and Jim. That night was drunken recklessness. The pain was just too much, and I needed to drink hard to dull it. I could do with a fix now to tell the truth, but the other medication suppresses it. It's as well you're here. I can be truly disgusted with myself. That helps.' They both went silent. Finally Andy begged him, 'Please forgive me, Matt. But I was ... am lost.'

Matt didn't reply straight away. He felt the betrayal, even if he understood it. He had been loyal, romantically loyal, to Andy. He had sworn to love him forever, and he had meant it and lived it. But the contract had been broken. The fact that Andy couldn't be loyal to him had hurt him very badly. He had found a way of dealing with the separation, but Andy couldn't. What did that say about their future relationship? He was not a saint. The temptation to call his damaged lover a two-timing junkie flared inside him. But it passed. Instead he gave a faint smile.

'So you're lost. Well, maybe finding a way for you is what this is all going to be about. But know this, you're coming back with me as soon as we can get you away from all this crap. There's no healing for you here. Your father knows it and you'll realise it too.'

'But do you ...'

'... forgive me? Actually, no I don't; well not yet. If nothing else it was fucking stupid. I never took you for someone stupid. You always seemed the stronger and quicker of us. You've hurt everybody involved. I always thought you were more clever than that; look what you did for Paulie. You saved him, but you couldn't save yourself. Do you know what? I think you need to be taking care of someone, and when you aren't you don't like yourself enough to take care of Andy. I don't know what'll be the saving of you, but I guess you'll have more chance with someone who knows you well enough to tell you that.'

Andy looked shocked through his bruises. For a moment he even appeared angry and his ears reddened. Then he subsided and merely looked lost again. After a while, Matt's curiosity made him ask,

'Where are they now? Where's Chuck and Jim?'

'Chuck, so far as I know, is still about his evil business somewhere, though maybe not in Salonica. No one's got anything on him, and Phil won't grass on him. Jim and Minnie took off as soon as the shit happened, after sanitising the house. It's as well they did. Chuck was happy to supply more than I needed, and Jim and Minnie liked to indulge at my expense.'

'Minnie! She seemed more sensible.'

'Drugs are not about sense, Matt, they are about needs and wants, mostly escape. Minnie isn't that happy a girl. She'd taken up with a prize jerk and couldn't escape him.' Andy subsided and after a while seemed to nod off. Time passed. There was a soft knock on the door, and Paul looked round it, followed by his Rachel. Andy had woken, and he nodded them both in. Paul kissed him gently on his bruised mouth, and sat next to him chatting in a low voice holding his hand with real tenderness. Matt was surprised at the depth of Paul's affectionate sensitivity towards Andy, and he began to think that perhaps he had never really understood him either. Rachel took the chair next to the bed and watched them both.

Matt took the opportunity to stretch his legs and go to the toilet. He paced the corridors slowly, looking out over the center towards the university. It was spring and the fresh green was on the trees. Matt seethed inside. There was anger against the jackals who had hunted and cornered his Andy, and anger too against Andy for not being as good and as bright as he had always thought him. But there was a bitter realisation that he was quite as naive as Andy had been. There was a lot about his lover that he had chosen not to see – as Katy had tried to tell him long ago - and in idolising Andy he had done him no favours.

Did he love Andy any the less now? A selfish corner of his mind told him the boy was going to be a drag on him, on his own bright future. What could he ever do to solve the problems of a mind like Andy's? Colonised as a little boy by the half-unhinged hatred of his mother for his father; excluded from normal society and family life; isolated and alone. An unloved boy with a barren, golden future. It's a wonder he had turned out as well as he had. But he had sincerely loved Matt, and he believed that he still did. You can't turn your back on such a bond, or on such glorious memories as their brief life together had left. No, the game was not over. Matt resolved that it was time for him to fight for Andy. But fight whom? Fight what?

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