Hand Me Down
by Evan Carlton
After dinner, I asked if it was okay to go to bed early. I was completely exhausted after everything that had happened. My legs felt like lead as I trudged towards the small guest bedroom. I sorted through my bag and picked out a clean pair of briefs and a T-shirt to sleep in. As I pulled off my polo shirt, I realised I was pretty rank, so I headed into Steven's bathroom to take a quick shower before bed. When I came out of the bathroom, Steven was lying on his bed. He looked up at me and smiled.
"Did you find everything?" he asked.
"Yeah, thanks. I just had to wash the stink off before I went to bed. Long day," I said by way of an explanation. I tried not to feel self-conscious in just my undies.
"No worries, mate. Sleep well. If you need anything during the night, you know where I'll be."
I went back to my own room and slid under the duvet. My hair was still a bit wet, so I would probably look kind of stupid in the morning, but there was no way I was going to be able to stay awake long enough to…
I felt a cold hand slip into mine and I turned on my side, knowing who I would see there. She was lying on her side as well, which seemed wrong somehow, but it felt good to see her face. I reached out my hand to touch her cheek. When she opened her eyes, I yelled out in surprise. She shook her head sadly and I calmed down a bit. "I'm sorry, Mum," I whispered.
"Sorry," she said, so quietly I could hardly make out the word. Then her voice got louder. "You're sorry, are you Ben? Too late for that now. You should have told me." Her voice began to rise to a scream. "You should have told me. You should have..." I felt my chest tighten as I began to panic. I could hear myself whimpering but I couldn't move. I was panting, so short of breath now that my head was buzzing and then she was gone and there was a hand on my shoulder shaking me awake.
"Ben, are you okay?" I heard Steven's voice, low in my ear. He slid into the bed next to me and I threw my arms around him and buried my face in his chest, tears flowing freely. I gasped for breath, still remembering the feeling of suffocating in my dream. I tried to force myself to stop crying, to stop being a baby, but I might as well have tried to hold back an ocean. Steven held me, rocking me gently, saying nothing. His hand rubbed my back comfortingly and eventually the tears subsided.
"First time?" he asked quietly.
"What?" I mumbled.
"The first time you've cried since she died." This time it was a statement, not a question. I nodded mutely, my face still pressed into his chest. "Good for you. Get it all out. It's like poison if you keep it inside." Gradually my breathing returned to normal and I unpeeled myself from Steven, looking at him sheepishly. I pulled my knees up and rested my head on them, exhausted. "You were saying something like 'you should have told me'. What was that about?" he asked.
"Nothing," I said quietly. "I don't think I ever told her I loved her. Maybe that's it."
"Probably. Listen it's too early to get up. Come into mine and we can talk. The bed's a bit bigger."
I snuggled down under his duvet and watched as Steven slid in next to me, turning on his side to face me.
"Why did you only start at Taradale High when you were fourteen?" I asked, the fog in my head clearing as I made myself comfortable. "Were you at a different school before?"
"I was in Auckland with my mum and stepdad," he said, turning onto his back and staring up at the ceiling. "Dad moved here after the divorce and we only saw each other twice a year after that. One night my stepdad read some messages I'd been writing on my phone to another boy and he just flipped out. In the end, he decided he wouldn't throw me out as long as I didn't tell anyone I was gay. I couldn't believe it when Mum took his side."
"So you left and came here?" I asked
"It wasn't that simple, Ben," he said with a sad smile. "I put up with it for three or four months. They could hardly look at me. Then I made some friends at the skate park one evening. They were a bit older than me but they gave me beer to drink and weed to smoke so I thought they were pretty cool. Turns out they just liked getting a dumb kid high, but I was too stupid and desperate to work that out until it was too late. One night they jacked a car and took me on a joyride. Somewhere along the line we crashed into a parked car and they all took off. I was passed out on the back seat, drunk as a skunk. The police decided I'd organised the whole thing on my own, so I ended up in court. I got off with community service, but my stepdad had had enough. He gave my mum an ultimatum – either I went or he did. So she called Dad and here I am."
"And he just accepted it?"
"Sort of. We had a few tearful conversations at first, but he was fine in the end. I had to promise not to drink until I was eighteen, and he's pretty strict about who I make friends with, but mostly we get along great."
"Why did you come out at school?" I asked. "You could have just said nothing and had a really quiet life."
"I do have a quiet life," he said, pretending to be outraged. He paused for a while. "On my first day, there were only two things people wanted to know about me; my name and whether I had a girlfriend. I was already tired of secrets. To be honest, I didn't really care what people thought about me being gay. When you're at peace with it, everything just clicks into place, no matter how old you are."
"Are there other gay kids at school?"
"There are over a thousand pupils at Taradale, so you know there are plenty. I know six other pupils apart from myself, including you. And no, I won't name names."
"Should I come out? Most people think I am already."
"Why is that? It's not as if it's obvious or anything."
"I don't know. One of the guys on the rugby team made a joke about me staring too long in the showers, and it just sort of grew from there. At first it was just harmless stuff, but then someone started a rumour that I was offering blow jobs for ten dollars during the lunch break. That's when it turned nasty. Thanks for stepping in when you did."
"It's okay. It's usually the ones who shout loudest about it that end up getting caught in a public toilet with a dick in their mouths. As for coming out - it's up to you. There aren't any rules for that. I suppose you'll just know when it's the right time."
I sighed. I couldn't imagine telling my rugby team-mates. "Thanks for letting me stay here, Steven," I said.
He reached out a hand and ruffled my hair.
"It's going to be alright, Ben. You'll see. You're a good kid."
I stared at him as I stood up to go back to my own room, unable to return his smile. 'I'm not nearly as good as you think I am,' I thought to myself. 'Mum found that out the hard way.'
I drifted off into an uneasy sleep, but thankfully my nightmare didn't return.
The next day Evan took us out on the boat for a few hours. It was nice to be distracted from my dark thoughts for a while. I borrowed an old pair of speedo shorts from Steven, a bit clinging for my taste but I figured nobody would see me apart from him, his dad and two German Shepherds, so I went along with it. We all swam together, the dogs climbing in and out using an underwater ramp attached to the swimming platform. Afterwards, Evan brought us sandwiches while Steven and I sunned ourselves forward of the helm, our backs against the windows of the small cabin. It was the first time I had felt genuinely happy for the best part of a year, since mum had started having stomach pains and began using the really hard drugs more often. I tried to forget the sweet smell of the cooking heroin and the feeling of helplessness when I begged her to stop. Every time, she would promise it was the last time. She would be better after this hit. Until the next one, of course.
"So how did Evan get so rich?" I asked after I'd polished off my second sandwich.
"Security software. He sold his share in a company for a few million dollars about four years ago. He's thirty-nine now."
"So he just sails around all day and doesn't have to work?"
"Well he always says I'm hard work," Steven said with a grin.
"He's really nice. He doesn't act like a rich person."
"How do rich people act?" Steven asked
"I don't know. Like they're better than you, I suppose." I shrugged.
"Dad's from Napier originally. He grew up here before he went to university in Auckland. He knows that having money doesn't make him better or worse than anyone else. I think he's just glad to have the chance to live his life the way he wants. He's always doing something. I've never seen him bored."
I wondered what it was like not to have to worry about money, or anything else really. I couldn't imagine it.
That evening, Charlie called Evan to say that he would drop by in the morning. He had some news about my grandmother and he wanted to deliver it in person. I cooked macaroni and cheese for Evan and Steven, and apparently there is a God, because it turned out perfectly. Evan complimented me so much that I got embarrassed and Steven had to ask him to stop.
The next morning, I met Elena. She came in twice a week to clean the house. She was about the same age as Evan, and I could tell by her accent that she was from Europe. Greece, she told me, but she had moved here when she was twenty one and, although she missed Thessaloniki, she thought that she would probably stay in New Zealand for good now. I helped her clean, which annoyed her at first until she realised I was doing it for me, not for her. After that she just handed me the mop and bucket and let me get on with it.
Evan and Steven were in the fitness room working out, so I almost jumped out of my skin when Charlie walked through the terrace doors and waved to me. I dropped my mop and gave him a hug. He wasn't wearing his uniform, and his jeans and T-Shirt made him look more handsome than ever. A few seconds later another man walked in from the terrace. He was a few years older than Charlie, and he looked very serious. His hair was beginning to turn grey and he wore a pair of glasses that made him look like a teacher at school. He introduced himself as Michael. I stared at Charlie, waiting for him to tell me that Michael was from the detention centre and that I should pack my things.
"Michael's my husband, Ben." Charlie said. They both laughed when my mouth dropped open. I stared at him, then at Michael, then back at Charlie.
"You're gay as well?" I said stupidly. "Steven never told me. I would never have guessed."
"Steven knows that we prefer to tell people ourselves. Not everyone wants to have gay policemen protecting them, you know." I heard a note of sadness in his voice. Michael introduced himself properly and told me briefly about his job at the National Aquarium, and how he was a professor of Marine Biology, but I should call him Michael. A few minutes later, Evan and Steven emerged from the fitness room, still looking very sweaty. Evan told us to make ourselves comfortable out on the terrace while they took a shower. Elena brought us some drinks and we all sat outside to wait for our hosts. I asked Michael how he and Charlie had met.
"Well, we have a burglar to thank for that, I suppose," Michael said. "Someone broke into the Aquarium and stole the day's admission money, and Charlie was the police constable who came to take my statement. He was twenty-five and I thought he was the most handsome man I had ever seen. I could hardly concentrate on giving my statement. I was trying so hard to think of a way to find out if he might be interested. Then he was gone and I thought I'd missed my chance."
"I spent the whole time I was supposed to be taking his statement thinking exactly the same thing," said Charlie "I'd never met a professor of Marine Biology before, and I sure as heck didn't know how to ask one out. So I kept writing and writing, hoping he would say something – I think your statement ended up being ten pages long in the end."
"Two days later Charlie turned up at the Aquarium looking very official and just as handsome," Michael continued. "I thought he was going to tell me they had caught the thief, and he says 'Professor Drummond, I just wish to update you on the progress of our enquiries. We haven't made any.'" All three of us burst out laughing and Charlie looked very sheepish. "So I finally plucked up the courage to say that, since he had driven all that way to give me an update, regardless of how disappointing it was, at least I could buy him a coffee." Michael looked at Charlie fondly, all the seriousness draining from his face. "And now we've been together for twelve years. Last year we got married." He proudly showed me his wedding ring. When he talked about Charlie his face lit up and he looked years younger. 'That must be what love really means', I thought to myself.
Michael asked me lots of questions about school and my favourite subjects. He was impressed that I played for the under-fifteen rugby team. I caught him looking at Charlie a few times, as if he wanted Charlie to ask me stuff as well. I didn't mind telling them things about myself as Charlie felt almost like a friend already.
Once Evan and Steven had joined us and everyone had got settled, Charlie looked at me and, with a brief look at Michael, he announced that he had some news for me.
"I don't want to upset you Ben, but it looks like you won't be moving to Palmerston North after all. We found your gran and unfortunately she has early-onset Alzheimer's disease. That means she needs permanent care and she can't possibly look after you."
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