The Messenger of All Things

by Joe Casey

now|

It seems foolhardy to ride a bicycle at this time of the year, but I don't mind. Some perverse part of me actually enjoys it, enjoys the crisp burn of the air on my face, numbing it, bringing a sting of tears to my eyes. I doubt that it's cold enough to induce frostbite and the concomitant symptoms - skin freezing, blackening, succumbing to gangrene - but a boy can always dream.

I'm late, but not all that late, really; still within curfew. I've stayed over at Hannah's longer than I've intended, but that's okay. I needed to talk; Hannah's a good listener. When she needs to talk, I listen. I sidesaddle the bike down the length of the driveway to the garage at the rear, slip off at the last moment to walk it to a stop, chain it to the fencepost. I stand for a moment outside, the cold insinuating itself slyly on my face, my hands, slipping inside my jacket. I breathe out a white cloud of air, watch it curdle and twist away.

My neighborhood is quiet at this hour, not even a dog out for its constitutional to disturb the stillness, no traffic plying the roads, no televisions or radios blaring out of open windows. As much as I dislike late October and its threat of imminent winter, I do love the peace. At night, when my parents are asleep, I come out here to let the solitude take me.

I stare up into the night sky; few stars are visible in the city, but there are some. I can trace Orion, can see jets plying the sky, even this late, red-eyes full of drowsy, exhausted travelers. A fainter pinprick of light moves slowly across the blackness: some satellite mirroring a small bit of the sun down to us.

Unconsciously, I itch the skin on my right wrist. I'm not supposed to do this, but I do. I can't help it.

It helps remind me.


Not for the first time I wonder what it would be like to let it in, this cold, let it take me. What would that feel like? Would it hurt, or would I just gradually go numb? Is this way preferable to others? It doesn't bear the taint and mess, say, of drugs or a razor blade, might even be seen as foolish or comical: stupid Andrew, too stupid to go inside at night, frozen to death on his own back porch. My parents would find me there, the next morning, cold and unmoving, sleeping the sleep of those who wish to be no more.

It hasn't been a good night. It hasn't been a good night for quite a few nights.

Not yet, I tell myself. Not yet. I rouse myself, shoulder my backpack, go to the back door.

The house is dark when I enter it; have my parents given up on me, gone to bed? It's only half past ten, but they do that sometimes, go to bed early, especially in the winter time, when there isn't all that much to do on nights like this except settle in to a warm bed and find solace in each other. The trick-or-treaters are done; even the teenagers have given up for the night.

I go to the refrigerator, open it up, take out a soda, crack it open, take a sip. On the counter is what remains of the candy my parents bought for this night; I reach in, fish out something - Twix, but … okay - unwrap it and pop the thing into my mouth. Sheba rouses herself from her bed next to the basement stairs, comes over, head-butts me in greeting. I reach down, scratch the top of her head, receive a throaty purr as thanks. I can hear the steady whisper of warm air blowing up from the floor, can hear the steady click of the wall clock - black and white cat with leering eyes that jink back and forth counting out the seconds - over the door to the dining room.

I can't sleep, even though I want to, envy my parents upstairs in their room, imagine my dad's snoring or my mother talking in her sleep. I go through the dining room into the living room, reach over to turn on a desk lamp, when I hear a voice.

"Don't," it commands me.

I actually cry out in fright, but I am not exactly surprised to hear that voice, that deep bass rumble. For six glorious months I heard that voice, was part of the life of the person to whom that voice belonged. I turn to see him, there, in the darkness, sitting on the floor, moonlight washing across his form. I'm not exactly surprised to see him here, on this night, a year after we first met, six months after he left me. I don't know why I'm not more shocked to see him; the manner of his leaving had been so abrupt, so final.

"Okay," I reply, when I trust myself to speak again.

"Don't you find the moonlight beautiful?" the voice rumbles.

"I do, Jacob, but …"

He chuckles. "You'll be fine, Andrew."

In the near-darkness, I go over to the couch, sit on it, look at him. There's a chill to the room that seems out of place; I tell myself that it's because I've just come in from outside and nearly November and a sudden cold snap that promises snow. Something about it, though, doesn't feel right; it's a piercing, bitter cold, as if the house has been left open to the outside for a long time.

"How are you?" Jacob asks me. His voice is as I remember it, a voice surprisingly deep for such a slender boy. It was one of the first things I noticed about him, that rumbly bass coming out of someone so slight, as if someone else were speaking for him.

"I'm …" and I can't go on. How, really, am I? "I'm here. Still."

In the darkness, I can see him smile, teeth flashing against his dark skin. "I understand."

"I miss you, Jacob. I know that." I close my eyes against a sting of tears.

"I miss you, too," he replies. "I didn't want to go, you know. It wasn't my choice."

"I know."

Jacob glances at the backpack I left on the floor. "How's school?"

I sigh; has he really shown back up like this just to talk about nothing? "School's fine, Jacob." I remember something. "By the way, are my parents here? And how did you get in?"

He grins, again. "Do you really need to wonder how I got in?" He pauses, remembers the first part of my question. "It's Thursday, right?"

Oh, yeah, right. Ever since I was deemed old enough - twelve - to take care of myself, my parents have reserved this night for themselves, treating themselves to dinner, or a movie, or both, or dancing, or anything that the two of them wanted to do, for themselves, by themselves. It's something they feel they need to keep their marriage from getting stale. They never stay out very late and I don't really mind that they exclude me from this. After all, it provided space and time for Jacob and me to explore the thing between us, the thing that - in many ways - defined us, and still defines me. Many wonderful and special hours passed in his company, in my room. My parents make it up to me many times over in other ways.

Tonight's adventure - now that I remember - is a post-trick-or-treat gathering for drinks and hors d'oeuvres at the Simpsons' house a few blocks over.

I'm still not sure that my parents ever really understood what Jacob and I felt about each other, what we did with each other on those nights. At least, they've never asked and I haven't - so far - volunteered. I assumed that I would one day tell them what I am, what I'd learned about myself and what Jacob meant - and still means - to me. Now, of course, I'm not sure there's any real need for it.

"How's school?" he asks, again.

"School's fine, Jacob. Why do you ask?" I let a little bit of exasperation creep into my voice, instantly hate myself for it. He doesn't deserve this.

"Well, after what happened … I mean, it must feel strange to be back there."

I think about it. "It is, I guess. Everybody's been dancing around it, but it's there. Things are … different."

"Do you talk about it?"

"We did, at first. Not as much lately." I amend that. "Well, some of us still do, to each other."

He thinks about this. "Yeah, I guess I understand. People want to forget."

I think about it some more. "No, that's not it. I think it's more that they don't want it to define them. It's not what they are."

Jacob considers this. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense."

"Nobody will ever forget this," I assure him. I know I certainly won't. I can't.

A bit of silence stretches between us; in the past, we had never really minded those silences. We'd always been comfortable with each other and never needed to fill the quiet between us with idle chatter. There had been many times we would go to my room and do nothing except be with each other.

"You look good, Andrew."

I look like shit, but "Thanks."

"You don't seem surprised to see me."

"Should I be?"

"Well, I mean …" He gestures helplessly at himself.

I smile. "I know. But I've made myself accept a lot of things lately, things that I thought I could never understand or accept in the past. This is just one more thing."

He grins. "So, I'm just a thing, now?"

I smile back. "You know you're not. You never were that. You'll never be that."

Jacob stands up, goes to the window overlooking the side yard, looks out. Clouds scud across the moon, now, and the wind is up and whipping through the threadbare trees. What leaves are not already on the ground dance in the cold breeze like a flock of nectar-besotted butterflies. I imagine branches clacking and knocking against each other, a song for the dead and dying. I've always hated this time of year, have even more reason to hate it ever since that day and the memories that always flood back. Try as we all might to hold on to the last vestiges of summer and its promises, we never can. Winter, as they say, is coming.

"You must have a million questions for me, Andrew."

"I do. Of course I do."

He turns to me. He is beautiful, perhaps even more so. "And I'll let you ask them, in time. But first, I want to ask you something."

"Okay."

"Do you remember how we met?"

then|

I do. Of course I do. As long as I live, I will never forget that day.


I hate Halloween. I didn't used to; as a kid, I'd dutifully go around with my older brother and sister when they still went out, by myself after that, dressed in some fanciful, overwrought concoction my mother had spent weeks working on, begging for candy, being generally cute. Even if it were cold or rainy - one could almost always bet on one or the other, or both - there I'd be, tricking and treating with the best of them.

I gave it up when I turned thirteen. I know most kids still like it, even my classmates … but it just seems absurd to me for someone my age going around taking bribes of 3Musketeers or Reese's Cups as insurance against the threat of property damage or physical violence, so I stopped. I think my mom still misses making the costumes.

We've lucked out this year, with the weather. The evening is quite pleasant for this kind of place at this time of the year. The trees still bear most of their leaves, gaudy displays of gold and red and russet. The evening promises to be clear and mild, perfect for trick-or-treaters. Already, the youngest ones are plying the neighborhood, sweet and innocent inside their costumes.

And I, bearer of grudges and disdainer of fun? I'm supposed to go to a party I don't want to go to.

In her bedroom, Hannah gives me the stink eye. "C'mon, Andrew. Go."

I roll my eyes. "Why?"

She rolls her eyes back, vents a frustrated breath "Why? Because you never do anything, is why."

"It's just a party, Hannah."

"Yeah, like you've actually been to one."

"I have been to a party."

"Your fifth birthday doesn't count." She snickers. "I'm almost certain they had to bribe your grandmother to be there."

"Why do you care so much?"

"Because you'll just sit home by yourself and brood."

"Brood? I don't brood."

"Yes, you do. You'll just sit there and stare out into space and wonder why you're so alone."

"Remind me again why you're my best friend?"

She grins. "For all the moral support I provide, of course. You wouldn't know what to do without me."

"But I do," I counter, smiling. "I'd be peaceful. There would be peace. And quiet."

"Highly overrated."

"I don't even have a costume."

"You don't need one."

"Uh, hello … it's a costume party. That would imply that I need a costume."

"Well … you can always go as brooding young gay nerd."

"Thanks. Thanks for that."

Hannah grins. "C'mon." She walks over to her closet, opens the door to enough clothing to outfit every sixteen-year-old girl in town.

"Jesus, Hannah. Did you buy all the clothes?"

"Well, of course I did," she replies. "I'm a theater major, darling!" As if that explains everything.

"High school students don't major in anything," I remind her. "I'm not going in drag, by the way," I warn her.

"Chicken."

"Bok, bok, bok …"

She starts pawing through the hangers of clothing, shuffling them back and forth, thinking, going through the catalogue in her head of what she owns and what she might do with it. She zips past a fur jacket, presses on … stops … goes back to the jacket, pulls it out. The thing looks like nothing so much as matted poodle fur.

"Hannah …"

But she can't hear me. She's muttering to herself, under her breath, pivots on a heel, starts going through another rack of clothing, pulls something else - a hat? - out, shoves it under her arm.

She goes for something else, and something else, and then turns to me, smiling.

"How adventurous can you be?"


An hour later, I am a passable Cowardly Lion.

I look at myself in her mirror, turning from side to side, scrunching up my face in a roar, hold my hands up like claws.

"You hate it," she says, frowning.

"No, actually … I like it." I turn to her and grin. "It's great."

And it is. The matted poodle fur jacket looks like a kind of mane and some fur, and Hannah's found some kind of beige hat with ears on it, along with fuzzy brown house slippers that look like paws. I balk when she pulls out a blonde wig and tries to put it on my head … but, with the hat, it's okay. She's even found a red ribbon to tie into the wig. Beige gloves are on my hands. Hannah's even painted my face with some black on the tip of my nose and whiskers on each side of my mouth.

"You look cute, Andrew," she tells me.

"Rawr," I say, to the mirror.


Everybody thinks I'm doing The Lion King.

"Have they never seen the movie?" I murmur to Hannah, after yet another person passes by me and yells "hakuna matata!" They don't even get that Hannah, standing next to me in a blue gingham skirt and red shoes and a stuffed dog crammed into a picnic basket, is Dorothy to my lion. The Wizard of Oz isn't exactly my favorite movie, but I've seen it and appreciate it for what it is. It's fun. My parents like it.

Hannah makes a face. "This crowd? Probably not."

The place is already crazy. I don't even know whose house we're at; I wonder whose parents are away and completely unaware that their house has been overrun by a gang of high school students. Music, thumpy and rappy and angry - I have no idea who it is - thunders off the walls. I can barely make myself heard, but it doesn't really matter. I know hardly any of these people - this is my first year at this school - but I do manage to get into some conversations with Hannah and people she knows.

There's beer, of course, from a keg in the basement, Host X's older brother or sister having supplied it, no doubt. I snag one, of course. It helps with my awkwardness in situations like this. There are other things available to me, as well, but I refrain.


An hour later, I escape to the front porch, in need of fresh air and quiet. Even with the door closed behind me the music is inescapable and I hope - for the sake of whoever is hosting the party - that the neighbors don't get involved. I've lost Hannah somewhere in the mass of bodies and pray that she's okay, because she drove us here and it's a long walk back home if I never find her.

Am I having fun? I guess. A lot of noise and bother, really, but it's interesting to see my classmates outside of class. There are already several possible friendships in there to be made; one girl told me that people didn't know what to make of me, because I always went around like - her words - I had a stick shoved up my ass. I took it as a compliment, fervently assured her that that wasn't quite true, that it was just because I was shy.

I think about slinking - is that what lions do? slink? skulk? - off and going home, a solitary alpha male predator prowling this vast savanna of suburbia, slipping from shadow to shadow … but I know that if I do, I'll never hear the end of it from Hannah. I take a breath, steel myself for another round of partying, when I hear some strange noise coming from down the street.

I turn back and look; there is, approaching me, a lone figure on … a skateboard? That might explain the low roaring, rolling noise I hear. The light, though, is strange; the figure appears to shine or glitter, or something that figures aren't supposed to do, and I can't figure it out.

And is it - he, I think - naked?

No, I tell myself, but I still can't quite figure out what I'm seeing. Whoever it is, though, seems to be making for this house. I think to slip back inside before he gets here, but I wait; I'm curious enough to see who this is. I slip into the shadows of the porch and wait. Skulk.

The figure - and now he's close enough for me to see that it is a guy - guides the skateboard onto the sidewalk and slows as he gets nearer to this house. He passes under one more streetlight and again there is the shining, glittery dazzle and I realize that he must be wearing some kind of metallic body paint … and then I realize, with a smile, who he is supposed to be.

And then he's here, at this driveway, kicking himself up it and onto the brick walk between the drive and the front of the house. He does something with his feet and a kick and the skateboard flies up into the air and into his hands. As he starts up the stairs, I step out of the shadows and into the yellowish glare of the porch light, and I scare him.

"Shit …" he mutters, stopping. "Scared the fuck outta me, dude."

"Sorry. I was just out here getting some air."

He eyes me as I eye him; I think I'm getting more out of this than he is … and I'm getting a lot, because he is just about naked. The only thing saving him from that is a skintight Speedo kind of suit, in silver metallic, that is - engagingly - a size or two too small for him.

Not that I mind.

He's shorter than I am and skinny … really skinny. Bony, almost. There's no fat on him anywhere; I feel like I can circle his waist with my hands … and I wouldn't mind trying. It's hard to imagine where anything inside him fits; he's like a textbook illustration on anatomy, with the skin stripped away to reveal the muscles and tendons underneath … and the bits of anatomy tucked discreetly away inside his Speedo look even more interesting.

And, that voice, that voice! Like honey butter and caramel and whiskey and silk all blended together, a voice conjured up from another world, so deep and satin-smooth it is. I could lose myself in that voice. Maybe I already have.

"Silver Surfer," I continue. "Cool outfit."

He grins. "Thanks. Not one of your most popular of superheroes, I know, but I've always liked him."

"I can see why. Who needs clothing, right?" I respond, without thinking … and then I realize what I've just said and I blush.

He grins. "I'm Jacob, by the way. I'd shake your hand but I'd be afraid of getting all this silver shit on your costume." He nods at my outfit. "Great movie, by the way."

I smile back. "Please don't say 'hakuna matata' … I've been hearing that all evening." Name, Andrew, name. Tell him your name. "I'm Andrew, by the way. Andrew Marsh."

"Hello, Andrew Marsh." Jacob frowns. "The bow is a nice touch. You really all that cowardly?"

Telling me he gets it, which makes me feel better. "Every chance I get."

"Well, we'll have to change that." He looks past me, at the house, then back at me. "This is the right house, isn't it? Tucker's?"

"I … have no idea, really. I came with a friend."

He narrows his gaze at me. "Andrew … Andrew. You the new kid?"

I shrug. "I … guess. I mean, this is my first year here."

"Who'd you come with?"

"Hannah. Hannah Preston."

"Oh, yeah! I know Hannah. She's cool."

I grin. "Well, then, of course I am, too."

He smiles. "Of course."

I look back at his body. "Aren't you, like, cold? You want to go inside?"

He grins. "Fuck, yeah. I'm freezing my balls off." He rolls his eyes. "Stupid me forgot that Halloween is in October."


The party has entered a new phase in my absence; the various groups that we place ourselves in - or get placed into - have Balkanized and staked out different parts of the house. Jacob and I wander around until we find Hannah (the basement group is extremely frightening and we beat a hasty retreat, praying that Hannah hasn't run afoul of them); eventually, we discover that she and her group have laid claim to a fire pit in the back yard and have it going, circled around it like cavemen proud of their signature achievement.

She scoots over as we approach, frowning. "You guys know each other?"

Jacob grins. "Well, we do, now."

Hannah smiles at that, as if at something only to which she is privy. Others in the group seem to know Jacob well, don't seem to be phased by his costume - or lack of it - and I understand that Hannah's people are his people, as well. Theater people, chorus people, art people, music people.

"Well, good," she answers.

These are most decidedly not my people. If I even have people. Right now, I seem to have only person. Me. And maybe Hannah. The jury's still out on Jacob.

Jacob sits to my left, careful not to let any of the silver brush up against me … although I wouldn't mind if it did. He settles his skateboard on the ground between his legs, turns to me, grinning. "I just hope I don't start to melt."

I smile back. "How did you ever manage to do all this?"

"Very carefully, and with a lot of interesting contortions," he answers. "Well, my big sister helped, too. Hopefully, my mom won't discover the condition of my bathroom until I get a chance to clean it up."

I make a face, look at his for a longish bit. It's hard to read the face under the paint and I don't dare stare too long, or things might get weird. I have no idea if he's like me.

He stares back, glances down, clears his throat. "How do … how do you know Hannah?" There's a fluttery edge of nerves in that question, and a little flame of hope starts up inside me.

I smile. "She took pity on me the first day of school, actually talked to me."

Hannah looks past me to Jacob. "He had this whole deer-in-the-headlights look about him. It was cute and pathetic at the same time. How could I say no to that?"

"Which pretty much describes every aspect of my life," I add.

"So, you're not part of this crowd," Jacob says, circling a hand to include everyone around the fire.

I open my mouth; Hannah beats me to it. "No. Andrew's actually -" and here she strikes a mock-horror pose, putting clenched fists in her mouth, opening her eyes wide in feigned shock "- a … jock!"

Jacob chuckles, clutches his chest, pretends to swoon. "Be still, my heart. Really?"

I roll my eyes, do something self-deprecating with my face. "Cross-country … so, ish."

"Wow," he says. "That's still pretty impressive. So, like … marathons, stuff like that?"

I nod. "Yeah. I mean, that's part of it. Other races. But I've run marathons before. I just finished one a couple weeks ago. The one the city puts on."

"That's like … twenty miles, or so, right?"

"Twenty-six," I answer. "And change."

Jacob smiles. "I don't know if I can even run from here to the end of the block."

"Ah … you get used to it," I say, smiling. But enough about me, I think. "So, Jacob, these are your people?"

He chuckles at that. "Only group that'll have me, at this point. I'm mostly chorus, but I've been in some plays."

Hannah leans over, again. I love her, but I wish she would butt out of whatever this is. "Jacob has a great singing voice."

"I bet you do," I add.

"Years of singing in church," he volunteers. "My daddy's a preacher."

Oh, I think. But … maybe this apple fell a little far from the tree. Little bits and pieces and hints and maybe more than a little wishful thinking tell me that Jacob might be gay. I know I'm gay … but that by itself doesn't mean … I shake my head. Don't be stupid, I tell myself. You just met him. For all you know, he could be Hannah's boyfriend.

Like a warm summer day, that voice.

I can sense Hannah watching us. She taps me on the shoulder, holds out an empty red cup. "Would you get me some more beer, Andrew? And maybe you'll want to get one for yourself … and Jacob, too?"

"Sure," I said, taking the hint and her cup. I hope that there are more cups down by the keg … which I think is somewhere down in the basement.


I'm trying to figure out how to juggle three full cups of crappy beer back up a flight of stairs and outside, without spilling it on a) myself or b) any of the approximately five hundred people crammed in this space, obviously drunk or high or both, trying to scream at each other over music so loud that I imagine cracks in the foundation. The cups hold liquid only in the sense that if you do not touch them, ever, they will hold liquid. Pick one up - especially full - and you're going to end up wearing half of it.

It looks like I'm going to have to make two trips … or find something in this room that might serve as a tray. Other people are waiting on the beer; I step out of the way and look hopelessly around.

There is, then, a voice behind me.

"Hey."

I turn; it's Jacob. He grins. "Hannah thought you could use some help."

"Uh, yeah … I, uh …" I gesture with the beer; some of it slops down my hand.

"C'mere," he commands me, taking one of the beers. Me, he takes by the arm, leads me into what turns out to be a utility room of some sort.

"Jacob, what …"

He draws me to him. "You know, Andrew, you have the most beautiful eyes …"


Back up and outside, nestling back into the circle, next to Hannah, I hand her her beer, my hand shaking only slightly because of the thing, the wonderful thing, that has just happened to me.

"Thanks," she starts, then narrows her gaze, and a slight smile ghosts her lips. She sets the beer down, reaches out, touches my mouth, holds her finger up to the light to see the trace of silver paint on the tip of it.

now|

I come up out of the memory with tears stinging my eyes. I swipe a hand over them, look over at Jacob, looking serenely back at me.

"Fuck you," I mutter.

He nods. "I know."

That had been one of the best days of my life up until that point. That kiss … time had stopped for that kiss, the madness around us had faded away for that kiss, I would have traded away almost anything for that kiss.

As I would, now, just to have Jacob back in my life.

"It's not fair." I try but cannot stop the whine in my voice, like a petulant child denied a treat.

"No, it's not."

"Why are you back, now? To torture me?"

He says nothing for a long moment. Then, "No. I would never do that."

"Then, why?"

"I think you know why."

I shake my head. "No, Jacob, I don't. You show up just when I thought I'd done it, just when I thought I'd made myself able to for-" I stop myself before I say it, but it's there.

He closes his eyes, smiles. "Forget? Is that what you were going to say?"

"No," I mutter. "Maybe. Not forget, but …"

"I understand. And now you know why I'm here."

I breathe out, slowly. The cold in the room is no less than it was when I'd first walked into this house. Is it from him? Is it because of him, because of however he is here? Along with the cold, I can hear - or imagine that I can hear - a thin hissing, like air escaping a flat tire, or static from a radio turned low.

"Do you know what you did to me?" I whisper.

"Yes. I'm sorry."

"I hated you for it. I still do."

"And you always will, you know. Some small part of what you'll remember will be that, as well."

I stare at him. "… never where you were supposed to be, always late, always cutting corners, always on the thin edge …"

He smiles, nods. "Yes. All of it. Every single thing you can say about it is true."

I fist another tear off my cheek. "Five minutes. Five minutes and you wouldn't have -"

"I know."

"I still have questions."

"And I have answers for you. As many as I can provide. Just … not yet."

"As many as you can provide?" I throw back at him. "What does that even mean?"

"I'll try to make you understand, if I can."

I recognize that stubbornness in his voice, know that he will tell me when he's ready to tell me and not before then.

"How long are you going to stay? Certainly you can at least answer that."

"I'll stay as long as you need me to stay, Andrew."

I get up from the couch, go over to him. The feeling of cold intensifies the nearer I get to him. In the darkness, I can barely make out his features; there seems to be something about them that I don't quite remember, some kind of refinement, some kind of … focusing? Sharpening? The hissing sound increases in volume the nearer I get, as well … and it's different, now. There are some harmonics in the sound, subtle and just below the surface, some richness to the sound that makes it more troubling. The roar of a waterfall increasing and increasing, warning you, until it's too late and you've been swept over it.

Or the sound of many voices speaking at the same time, in some vast space that echoes. I can almost tease meaning out of the sound.

"Cold," I mutter. "So cold …"

"That's part of it. I'm sorry; I can't help it."

Part of what? I don't ask; I know he won't tell me. At least, not yet. He shakes his head: don't worry about it.

I reach out, to touch him once more, but he shakes his head again. "Don't," he warns.

I pull my hand back. "I can't touch you?"

"I'm not sure that you should, Andrew. I … don't know what would happen if you did."

"Meaning what?"

"Meaning I don't know."

I go back to the couch, sit down on it, cross my hands over my chest … and I know what that gesture means. As, I see, does he.

"Andrew, please … don't be that way."

"What way?" I want to hear it from him.

He smiles. "Like an asshole."

"Oh, I'm the one being an asshole? You show up like this, after all this time, with no explanation that you can give me … and I can't even touch you now, even though I've wanted to do nothing but that for -" I break off, not trusting myself to speak.

"Hey," he countered. "This is all new to me, too, you know. I need you to understand that."

"Okay, fine, whatever …"

He grins. I hate him for it. "Asshole."

"Fuck you," I counter.

"… aaand there's the Andrew I know and love. Always with the scintillating wit and snappy comeback."

"Fuck you," I echo.

"Speaking of that …" he ventured.

"It wasn't a request," I mutter. "I'm not that stupid."

"I know that," he countered. "But it's a nice lead-in to my next question."

"Which is …?"

He takes a deep breath. I ready myself.

"Do you remember the first time we made love?"

then|

I do. Of course I do. As long as I live, I will never forget that day.


That kiss, and everything implied in it, sits with me that entire weekend. I go home from the party a different person from the one I was when I stood in front of the mirror in Hannah's room, looking at a person in disguise. That disguise - all disguises? - are gone, now, and I spend those two days trying to understand that things that had formerly been in a kind of convenient and out-of-focus dreaminess are now concretely real.

Only in the past couple of years have I begun to come to grips with this fundamental thing about myself: I like boys. That alone is hardly unique; I know several young men and women in my school who are obviously gay and have come to accept it, even flaunt it, with no shame or reservation, and I admire them for it.

I only wish I was one of them.

I don't know what stops me. Fear of disappointing my parents, my brother and sister, my grandparents? Various aunts and uncles, cousins? Neighbors, the nice lady behind the lunch counter in the cafeteria, my track coach? The mayor? The Pope?

Think big, Andrew Marsh. The future of the country is at stake! Decide now!


I realize that I don't know Jacob's last name. I can't do the responsible, prudent, adult thing - which is to go on the internet and stalk him, not without that name. I could call up Hannah, browbeat it out of her - I don't think it would take much, honestly - and arm myself with it, but that seems like cheating. His body is all too (achingly) obvious; his face, underneath the scrim of silver, is far more difficult to reconstruct. He could be anyone and everyone.


Monday morning brings school and the realization that today I will know more about my secret Silver Surfer. That is, unless he's decided that the kiss had been a mistake and is running - physically or only metaphorically - in the opposite direction. That unwelcome little morsel of a possible reality wedges itself in my brain and so here I sit in the cafeteria, by myself, working on a piece of pizza the kitchen has whipped up for my delectation, and which tastes like nothing so much as microwaved leather. I grin at my predicament; I think it borders on the brooding that Hannah had accused me of. My appetite isn't really there; I'm about to give up on it when there is a blur of motion across from me: some kid sitting down, swinging a leg over the bench, plopping down on it with a grunt, dropping a backpack next to him with a rustly thud. It's some African-American kid … and I'm thrown, at first, because this is the first time I've seen him as … him.

I can't stop the smile on my face, because he's smiling as well. "Jacob," I say.

"Andrew."

Sweet, I think, looking at him … and I wonder what he would think that I think that his face is sweet. Longish, narrowish, with a strong dollop of nose and lips whose corners seem fixed in a permanent smile. And he is dark, easily the darkest person I've ever seen; a phrase comes to me from sophomore English, when Mr. Pettit had had us read excerpts from Homer. That phrase: wine dark. And although it had a different context, there, it comes back to me now, here. His skin is rich roasted-coffee, bitter-chocolate, blue-black, the kind of darkness that draws you in and grabs you and won't let go, the kind of darkness that makes you want to reach out and run a finger across it just to feel skin like that, skin that must feel like velvet.

And those eyes, his eyes … dark amber glass flecked with topaz and mystery.

And I say to him what he'd said to me, that last Friday, right before he'd leaned in to kiss me.

"You know, Jacob, you have the most beautiful eyes."


We chatter ourselves around this thing for nearly a week, dance around it in degrees, teasing it, testing it. Mostly, at first, simply talking about it.

"Have you?" he asks me.

"No," I respond. "Have you?"

He shakes his head. "I want to, but …"

"But it scares you."

"No," he answers, then shrugs. "Well, maybe a little …"

"It scares me. I know that. But, sometimes … it's all that I can think about."

He makes some kind of exasperated noise. "I know. And I don't want to be scared of it."

"I know I shouldn't feel this way, but … sometimes I think that I would be letting people down if they knew that I was gay, and that I had done … well …"

He smiles. "I know I'd let people down, if they found out. I'd probably get kicked out of the house if my dad found out."

"Preacher, you say?"

"Yeah - the worst kind. Baptist. Hellfire-and-brimstone and all that crap. I don't think he knows … but he's said things, in church, about it, about people like me - even his own brother - and all I can do is sit there and nod my head." Jacob shrugs. "I don't know … I don't think I'll ever understand a god like that, angry and judgmental. I can't understand how a god can think about creating people only to damn them to hell for being different." He smiles, lamely. "Sorry. Didn't mean to vent. It's a habit."

I grin. "Sounds like a lovely man, your father. Can't wait to meet him."


In the end, my parents give us the out we need, even if they don't realize it.

"Thursdays …" I venture.

"Okay …"

"My parents go out by themselves. It's a kind of … habit, with them."

"Oh? Can't stand to be around you, can they?"

I grin. "Well, they've never come out and said it to my face, but …"

"Leaving you all by yourself in that great big old house," he says. "For hours on end."

"It doesn't have to be alone, you know."

We stare at each other. Now, we have a time and a place.

"No brothers and sisters to worry about?" he asks.

"No," I answer. "They got out when they could. A brother and a sister. One of each."

He grins. "What does that make you?"

I shrug. "I don't know. Stuck in the middle, I guess."

He makes a face. "Uh … just what kind of … equipment, do you have, any way?" He catches himself. "I mean, it's okay, either way … I guess … I mean, I've never, well …"

"It's probably good that I can't tell if you're blushing," I answer. "Guess you'll just have to find out for yourself."


Do you know what you're doing? I ask the person in the mirror. He looks back at me, grins at my grin.

As much as you do, he answers.

Which is to say, of course, not at all.

It's Thursday. That Thursday. A day which will live in … well, in whatever days like this live in. Not infamy, I hope. A little better than that, I think. Unless things go spectacularly wrong.

Perhaps I'm overthinking this. I finish drying myself and go into my bedroom to dress.


My parents want to meet him. Not, I think, for that reason; I'm not ready to prop him up next to me and announce to them that this is the boy who's going to pop my cherry. That image, I know, is not right. I try to think of one more appropriate. Pack my fudge, then? Not much better.

I think that it's more that they're interested in meeting my friends … not out of any need to spy on me, but simply because I'd made so few of them after we moved to this city that anybody is a novelty. Hannah they know and love - and maybe think that she's my girlfriend, a notion I haven't been too quick to disabuse them of - but I haven't introduced them to anyone else because … well, there hasn't been anyone else.

I've always been a bit of a of loner, I guess. If I had to figure out the reason why, it might be because I was kind of an "oops" baby. By the time I was old enough to be someone others might want to be around, my big sister was well into middle school and my brother nearly done with high school. We all got along just fine, but we never had all that much in common with each other; as a result, I spent - and still do spend - most of time by myself. I know my parents worry about that, even though I've assured them on several occasions that I have no plans or desire to become, say, the next Unabomber or one of those people who live under bridges.

My parents are upstairs, right now, getting ready for another one of their dates. Tonight, I think, is dinner and a movie … which is just fine with me; it will give me and Jacob enough time to do … whatever we end up doing. Or not. I really don't know what to expect from tonight.

It's not that I don't know what sex is, even gay sex, at least in theory. The internet has been very enlightening on some of the more … vigorous aspects of it. All of the guys seem to enjoy it, but it all looks so intense and energetic. Honestly, I think I'd be just as happy if all we did tonight was to kiss again.

Kissing, I can handle. The rest of it looks a little daunting.


I pull out my phone for the hundredth time, check the time. Jacob's supposed to be here at seven and he's got thr-

On cue, there's the doorbell.

I spring up off the couch. "I'll get it!" I shout, as I go to the door, open it.

"Hi," I say to him.

He grins. "Hi."

"Uh … come on in." I stand aside to let him in. I see he's remembered his book bag, our cover - studying - for the evening, a reliable excuse used by high school students since the age of the dinosaurs. He's dressed for the weather, bundled in a jacket and toboggan over his close-shaved scalp, boots on his feet. He shrugs out of the boots, leaves them by the door; the rest of it follows and I drape it over a bench by the door.

He blows out a breath ragged with nerves. "So …" he starts. He leans in, then, for a kiss, and I move to oblige him … but then here are my cursed parents, clomping down the stairs. Jacob smiles, hisses out a laugh. "Shit …" he whispers.

We part, just in time, as they step into the living room.

Pleasantries are made, exchanged; duties are discharged and Jacob is deemed acceptable.

My parents bundle themselves out the front door and to the car. My mother looks back, laughs. "Don't do anything we wouldn't do!" she calls out and I start; does she know? Does she suspect?


When the door shuts behind them and we hear the car start up and pull away, Jacob turns to me, grinning. "What, exactly, wouldn't your parents do?"

I roll my eyes. "I'm not sure. There's a room in the attic I'm not supposed to go into."

"Interesting … interesting."

I force myself away from images of my parents' romantic lives, step into the living room.

"Nice place," Jacob offers, behind me.

"Thanks. We haven't been here that long, but …" it's not bad. My mom has an eye, and the house looks cozy and lived-in. "You want a drink? Soda, I mean. Or water."

"Soda's fine." Jacob bends down, picks up his backpack, follows me into the kitchen, where I set about splitting a soda between us. My hand shakes only slightly with my nerves.

I look down at the backpack. "What's in that, by the way?"

"Oh … things for tonight. Dildos, whips, nipple clamps, anal beads … you know, the usual."

"What?!"

Jacob barks out a laugh. "Relax, Andrew. It really is just some books and a computer. Just in case anyone got curious."

"I doubt that I'm fooling anyone, anyway," I answer.

Jacob shrugs. "Depends on what you told them."

"Well …"

"Or not. I understand. My parents don't know, either. They might suspect it, but until I come out and say anything …"

"It's all just anyone's guess." I fill in.

"Yeah."

I hand Jacob his drink and we go upstairs into my room. I shut the door behind us and go to sit at my desk, in front of my computer. Jacob eases himself down on the bed. We look at each other.

"You know," Jacob starts, "I'm not all that sure I'm gay, anyway."

What? "But … you, um … kissed me."

Jacob grins. "Oh, yeah … right."

"I think that's a pretty strong indication, myself," I add.

"Oh, I don't know. It happens all the time - you should have seen it when the whole varsity football team made out with each other after they won state. It was before you got here."

"I … would pay money to see that."

We both fall silent; Jacob knocks back the last of his drink, throwing it down his throat like Socrates tossing back his hemlock. I hear the clink of ice as he sets the empty glass down on my nightstand.

We look at each other again.

"Nervous …" he murmurs.

"Yeah. Me too."

"We don't have to …"

"Oh, I think we do. I just don't know how to start."

He rattles the backpack. "Maybe those anal beads …? They tend to be a real icebreaker."

I smile. "Maybe next time."

"You know, there's one thing I think we do pretty good at."

"Nervous chatter and overanalysis?"

"Well, that, too, but … come here."

I go there, sit beside him. Up close, I am reminded again how sweet his face is, how boyish. Unbidden, I reach out a hand, trace his nose, his lips. He closes his eyes.

"That feels nice," he whispers.

"You are so beautiful," I reply.

"I have my moments," he jokes. "And, by the way - you need to kiss me now."

I do. Our lips brush once, brush again and do not pull away. I can feel his tongue questing at my mouth and I open it, letting him in, amazed at how just that one thing feels. I reciprocate and things go where they want to go. I cradle the back of his head in the palm of my hand, feeling the scratchy burr of his hair under my fingers. I can feel myself tightening down there, between my legs, sense a similar but unfamiliar sensation from him, a hard ridge of flesh barking up against my own through the rough denim fabric. Finally, we break apart and come up for air.

"Nope," he announces, smiling. "Not gay at all. Sorry."

I chuckle. I understand the humor, the need for it. "Whew! Glad we dodged that bullet! So … chemistry or pre-calculus for tonight?" I say that because I know he's joking. I think.

"Stand up," he tells me. I do. So does he.

Another long look - is my life going to be defined from this point on by long looks? - passes between us. There is no noise in the room save for our breathing, a gentle sigh of air from the heater, a slight breeze outside in the trees.

He kicks off a shoe.

I smile, kick off a shoe, pawn advanced upon the board.

The other follows, as does mine.

Socks, next, then sweaters and shirts. His torso is not new to me - but how delicious the memory! - but mine is to him and … well, it is what it is, as I ruck my shirt over my head, toss it on the floor. He doesn't seem to mind. My nipples crinkle in the now-cool air. I am ghost pale next to his dark umber, nearly a study in opposites. I am strawberry-blond and peaches-and-cream and a dash of freckles across my nose, my back, my chest.

He doesn't seem to mind.

We shrug out of our jeans with a rustle and a hiss of sound and they join the pile on the floor. Nothing to worry about, not yet, but we're on the threshold. I remember his body from Halloween, under the scrim of silver paint and the too-tight swimsuit … and here he is, neatly tucked away. But there and still proud with what our kiss had awakened. As am I, tent-poled under my boxer briefs.

I stand there in front of him, arms akimboed across my chest, hugging the warmth to me, but suddenly self-conscious, as well. I have been naked in front of other boys, before; post-run showers in the gym and all of that, seen but studiously ignored, something endured because it had to be, because not to ignore it is to give into that greater reality, those greater attractions.

He steps to me, pulls my arms down and to my side, traces a finger across my collarbone, down between my pectorals, down the staccato of my ribs, across the gentle hills of my belly, to that graceful curve that some of us - that I - have, that lovely curve that starts at hip and ends … there.

"I knew you would be beautiful," he murmurs.

I whisper out a laugh. "I have my moments …"

This, I now understand, is what it all comes down to, this moment, this present, standing naked - body and soul - before someone else, someone who wants what you want, who dreams what you dream, who will let you do what you want.

We hook thumbs into elastic, bend and twist and flex and then here we are, wearing only that which nature has tailored for us.

And … and …

And I laugh.

I can't help it. I do it mostly because I am startled by it, by the sheer audacity of it, something from some other man seemingly grafted there, to him, to this slight boy, a gift from some perverse but well-meaning god, made, perhaps, in atonement for shabbier work done on the rest of him.

I do it because I am delighted by it, charmed by it, amazed by it.

"Thanks," Jacob mutters … but he sees it, he knows, he gets it.

"Lucky boy," I whisper. "Well done, you …"

His hand reaches out, trails a finger along the length of my own contribution to the evening, and I shiver.

"This will do just fine," he answers, smiling.


We end up on the bed, my bed. I am there, on my back, head propped up on a pillow, my legs spread. Jacob lies upon me, between my legs, and how wonderful that feels, that touch of him … and my geometry teacher is proved wrong: the parallel lines of our limbs do converge as our desire unites us.

We look at each other, silently, eyes speaking where mouths need not. His head dips down towards mine and, again, we kiss. I allow my hands to travel upon him, down his thin back, down to that generous upswelling of flesh there, twin handfuls of it, compact and muscular … and he obliges me access to that darker territory hidden there, at the heart of him, as I trail a finger down into that dusky valley. A scratch of hair, there, and then the softest velvet. I do nothing but brush a touch over it, but there is a promise, there, that I will be welcome back, at some point in the future, to make my home there, to claim it for my own.

His hardness asserts itself against mine, flesh sliding against flesh, deliciously. Something pulses through me - not that, I am not ready yet - but something that hints at it, some base part of me anticipating the rest of it, its stuttering completion. A groan escapes me, sliding through and around our still-locked mouths, and I feel his mouth shift and reorient itself, and I can tell that he's smiling. I smile in return, and we part.

He rears up, then, still between my legs, pulls me up with him and we confront each other again, on our knees - perhaps a bit unsteady in the shambles of the bedclothes - as we come back together. We look down at ourselves: two upcurving bits of ourselves, abstracted heads and mouths and torsos, that which defines our sex as it defies our reason and our caution. Jacob reaches down, grasps both of us in his hand, squeezes us together, acknowledging the greater truth of this thing: we are more than just this, but this is its most powerful symbol.

Jacob does something and then there is a dollop of liquid on his fingers, made from each of us, and he draws forth the most astounding feeling as he works both of us with it … and I can feel it start, the first step on that ladder, climbing up and up, ever higher, into some other heaven under some other sky. Our breaths are ragged and uneven, punctuated by small cries and whispers. My body hints at it: my nipples harden and crinkle, as do his, small copper coins punctuating his torso, the currency of this new and exotic country.

I fight and I fight until I can fight no more and I yield to it, to the uprushing pulse of it as I cover his hand with my seed, mingling with his, the scent - thick and sweet and full of life, now wasted - wafting up into my nostrils even as I gasp air back into my lungs, falling back down that ladder, away from that heaven.

But I know that I will return to it. I will offer new things to it, new delights and fancies, new gifts.


This is, for us now, the best thing we could have done. There will be time later, we know, for the rest of it, for the pushing of boundaries further and further into this new and unfamiliar and astonishing territory.

We will have all the time we need for this thing, we think. We have breached its threshold; the palace will open itself at our leisure, room upon room upon room.

In that, of course, we are mistaken … but who can foresee the rest of it?

now|

From this memory I awaken with an acute and unfortunate physical reaction; to wit: I have an erection. I try to hide it, but - of course - Jacob notices. He grins.

"Nice to see that I still have that effect on you."

"Shut up," I mutter, willing it to subside.

He grins, continues. "If you need to take care of anything, don't let me stop you."

I flush with embarrassment. "Shut up, Jacob! I'm not going to -" I flounder. "And, anyway, it's not …" I sigh with frustration, with anger, with … desire. Desire?

He chuckles.

I bridle. "It's not funny, Jacob!"

"Oh, c'mon … it's a little bit funny, Andrew."

"That's not how I want to … remember you, Jacob."

He frowns. "Really? Why not? The things you and I did together were pretty amazing. Or do you remember it differently?"

"Well, no, it's not … that. It just … I mean, those days are over. It was more than just … that."

"Of course it was. But that - as you keep calling it - was amazing. You have to admit that. You shouldn't be embarrassed or ashamed that that was part of what we were to each other."

"But there was more to it …"

"I know that, Andrew." I hear a note of … annoyance, in his voice. Reproof? "And I love you for it. But I'm not a saint. Neither are you. The times that you and I made love are just as important as the times when we … I don't know, just watched a movie or went out for coffee or talked until two in the morning. We were lovers, Andrew. We made love to each other. On the most basic, the most crude level, we fucked each other. And, I don't know about you, but the sensations of you being inside me … or me being inside you … were indescribable. Touching you, tasting you, holding you in my mouth, feeling your tongue there … being able to do things to you and with you with no limits and no shame … that's a big part of what we are, what anyone is."

My erection, which had - mercifully - begun to fade, now - most unmercifully - rears its head again, so to speak, uncomfortably hard in my jeans, so uncomfortable that I flick a hand there, to resettle things. Jacob watches me.

"Gotcha."

"Why are you doing this?"

"To watch you squirm."

"To torture me."

"No. Not that. Never that." He pauses. "Mostly, just to remind you that that part of your life is not over. Even though I'm not ever going to be a part of that again, you can't just turn it off. You're not done with it."

"It's not like I've had any opportunity, you know. Or desire."

"But you will, Andrew. You will. One day, maybe sooner than you think, there will be someone. And I want you - I need you - to know that that's okay."

I admit to myself that he's right. This dark year of pain and misery and loss has been flecked here and there with strange glimmers of something, glimmers that I suppress because they feel wrong, they feel like betrayal, but I feel helpless to deny them. There are others whom I've noticed, friends and strangers alike … seen in passing, a knowing glance, a smile, some gesture.

He must see it in my face, that guilt, that shame … but his smile is a surprise and a … blessing.

"I'm sorry," I mutter.

"You don't have to apologize, Andrew. Not to me, or anyone else. You should never be sorry for what you are and what you feel."

"It feels like I'm betraying you," I say, giving voice to my worst fear.

"And I'm telling you, you're not. You never can. We were together for as long as we could be, and I wouldn't trade any of that for anything else."

"I thought this would be forever."

Jacob looks at me for a long moment. "I know you did."

Something in his tone stops me. "You didn't?"

"Yes, but …"

I look at him; I'm sure my incredulity is apparent on my face. He sighs. "Nothing is forever, Andrew."

"It can be. Could have been," I amend myself.

"I would have fought for it, if I had to."

"But …"

"But there are no guarantees. That, maybe, is what I understand best about this."

"That seems … cruel."

"Of course. It is cruel," he replies. "It's nothing but cruel, and can be nothing but that."

"That's why you've come back?" I ask. "Just to tell me that?"

He says nothing; I get the sense that he's gathering himself, trying to find some answer that will both placate me and, at the same time, express the greater nature of whatever is going on.

Then, "How old are you, Andrew?"

I frown; he should know this, but, "Seventeen. Almost eighteen."

"How old do you think I am?"

Tonight seems like a time to rehash old knowledge; I oblige him. "You're a year older than me."

He shakes his head. "The me you knew - he's almost nineteen. This me -" and he smiles "is far, far older. Everything that I am is built on those who have gone before me. I'm … well, as old as the universe, I guess. The conscious universe."

"If you say so." I'm more than a little tired of playing these sophomoric games; this is every bad short story ever written by a would-be teenage author.

"You don't believe me."

"It's not that, Jacob. You can be whatever you want to be, say whatever you want to say … and I have no way to dispute that, to call bullshit on whatever you're trying to sell me."

"It's not bullshit, Andrew."

"Maybe, maybe not, Jacob. I'm … well, I'm not sure that I care, any more."

He falls silent, thinking. Then, "I'm not trying to sell you anything, Andrew, but … okay. I get that. I see where you might be skeptical."

I can't keep the sarcasm out of my answer. "You think?"

In response, he chuckles. "That's what might save you, you know."

"What?"

"Your sense of humor. Your sense of irony … or sarcasm … or whatever it's called. I forget."

"Save me from what?"

"Yourself."

"I don't need saving from myself," I mutter, knowing it for the lie that it is.

"Mmm … I'm not so sure," he answers.

"Look at you, all smarty-pants all of a sudden. If only -" I break off. I can't say this.

"I've learned some things since then," he says, his voice calm. When I don't respond, he goes on … and I know - I know more firmly than I've known just about anything in my life - what he's going to ask, and he does.

"Do you remember that day, Andrew?"

then|

I do. Of course I do. As long as I live, I will never forget that day.


No one should ever have to take AP American History at eight o'clock in the morning. I love history, but there's a limit to how much one can endure. Luckily, it's fairly recent history - post-Second-World-War America, Eisenhower and McCarthy and the military-industrial complex, and Mr. Liddell is doing his best to tie this into the current administration and the war on truth … and Mr. Liddell is smart - no doubt about that - but he has quite possibly the most sleep-inducing voice I've ever heard.

And I'm not alone; I'm all but convinced that Michaela Stoddard has learned the trick of sleeping with her eyes open, like fish. I catch her eye and she smiles, slightly, crosses hers in a will this ever end? kind of way. I suppress a chuckle; Mr. Liddell does not have a very good sense of humor, especially when it concerns him.

I'm also wondering where the hell Jacob is. He's supposed to be here; I don't think he's sick, because he spent part of last night with me, and - given some of the things we'd done to each other - if he's sick, then I'm going to be sick, too.

As discreetly as I can - we're not supposed to use our phones in class; they get confiscated if we get caught - I ease out my phone, type a quick message to him: where are you? Michaela smiles, waggles her finger at me. I shrug.

Mr. Liddell is knee-deep in the arcana of the Cold War when my phone vibrates; I glance at it: forgot my cap and gown, had to go back, in the parking lot. Today is class picture day, where seniors all get tricked out in their graduation finery and pose in front of the school like the happy class of seniors that they are. Actual graduation is some weeks away; an eternity, but at least the end is in sight, for Jacob. I have another year to go in this place; I'm not quite sure what this means for Jacob and me; we haven't talked about it, but it's there, in the background.

Mr. Liddell turns to the whiteboard, starts writing down a list of names and

pop

stops, turns to the door, frowns, opens his mouth, shuts it, turns back and

poppop pop

mutters "… fuck …" under his breath, turns to us, motions us to be quiet, runs to turn out the light, locks the door to the room and

poppoppop pop poppop

And then we hear the screaming.


And the rest of it, and the rest of it, and the rest of it …

As quietly as we can, we barricade the door to our classroom with overturned tables and chairs, crouch down behind them, hoping they're enough to stop the unthinkable from happening. Mr. Liddell is on his phone, texting … probably to 911, to tell them what he's heard. We can hear more of the popping sounds, steady and relentless, and more screaming.

I dare a text to Jacob, to warn him, but it sits there, on my screen, cycling, cycling, cycling …

And the sounds are getting closer.

We hear a squeak just outside our door, steel ourselves for that unthinkable. Michaela is crying, quietly, steadily, her face a mask. Again, Mr. Liddell puts his finger to his lips.

The doorknob turns once, turns again. The loudest noise in the room is the electromechanical hum of the clock above the door, ticking away our eternity.

Another squeak, a footstep … but the doorknob stops turning, and we breathe a silent sigh of relief … and I'm ashamed that I feel that way, because that just means he's gone on to kill someone else, someone I probably know.

And we wait, and we wait, and we wait, in complete silence. I imagine the whisper of leathery wings in the air around us as death's angel rises up from her cool, dark crypt to claim her own, cleaving souls from their earth-bound vessels with claws like diamond and coal.

The sounds of the slaughter drift away from us, towards other parts of the building.

Replaced, now, by a growing crescendo of sirens, many dozens of them, like banshees.


Presently, Mr. Liddell gets up, goes over to the window, peeks out. Carefully, he eases open the window, looks out; something we can't see draws his attention … but we see him relax. He motions us to stand up and come over, and now I thank the gods that I have AP American History at eight o'clock in the morning because our classroom is on the ground floor and we can do the simplest and most unthinkable thing of all, which is to step through the window and out onto the grounds, and we do.


We've rehearsed this, many times, during our stint in what education in America is, now: the fact that we might become victims simply by being in a school, and relatively defenseless. We laugh about it, amongst ourselves, because there is nothing else that we can do to take away the horror that is at the base of this.

It's not easy to run with your hands clasped over your head, but we do it because we have to, so that they know that we are innocent, are not responsible for the terror unraveling itself inside the building behind us. But one amongst us is.

The fact that we are able to do this can mean only one thing: that the police are inside the building and have cornered the shooter. And then we hear it; the tenor of the sound changes, grows into a roar of endless volleys, like popcorn.

And then, silence.

We are closer now to the group of officers and medics gathered at the edge of the property; they wave us on towards them: Come on! Run! Faster! You'll be safe here!

But we will never be safe.

Out of the corner of my eye, I sense some other nexus of activity, to my right.

At the parking lot.

Where students are allowed to park.

And I know. I know.


Those shoes. We joked about those shoes, his simple, subtle act of defiance against his father, a metaphoric upraised middle finger, those shoes … rainbow colored, extravagant, look-at-me, look-at-what-I-am shoes.

I cannot see him, directly, only a shroud of workers busy around him like ants reveling at some discarded morsel on the ground. I see heroic efforts being expended for him, but when the wave parts for the briefest of seconds, I can see also the growing pool of scarlet, of crimson … and there is too much of it, far too much of it.

I break from my run; behind me, Michaela brushes past me, turns, her mouth open in confusion, her eyes alarmed.

"Andrew!" she hisses. "What are you -?"

I take a step, and another, and another, can hear shouted exhortations from the edge of the field.

And I stop. I know it's too late even before the ants do, watch the activity ebb and then subside, as they understand that there is nothing more they can do.

At the end of the line of us is Mr. Liddell; he is here, now, next to me, bundling me up in his arms in a bear hug, forcing me to move with him.

"No, Andrew, you have to -" and I do.


We dissolve into a boundless sea of parents, including my own, onlookers at a tragedy for which they - all of them - are somewhat responsible in their it-can-never-happen-here ignorance. The three of us embrace each other and they begin to walk me away from all of this, as if the not seeing it will simply erase it from my memory. Their voices are deadened waves of static heard from far away. When they stop, I start.

"He .." I start. "He …" I start again.

"Baby … he who?" my mother asks.

And I say his name because I must, because there is nothing else I can say that will make sense.


There is a period of time between the occurrence of such an event and the full understanding of it. It helps, perhaps, that I am medicated nearly to the point of apathy, but I still awaken each morning with the thought that today I might see Jacob, that we might spend time together … and then I awaken fully and realize that I can't do that, will never do that again.

All I do, it seems, is talk … to my parents, to Hannah, to the counselors the school has provided us, to my doctors, all of them circling around the thing, nibbling at it, as if hoping that working in concert, they will eventually wear this thing away to nothing.

The only real upside to this is that I will not have to go into that place again for a while. What happened happened so close to the end of school that they've put everything on hold until all the investigations are complete, which - they tell us - will take time. After that, who knows?

And do I really even care at this point?


"Do you think you should go?" my mother asks me, a few days later.

I look at her, mouth open. "I have to."

"You don't, not if you don't want to."

"He was my … best friend." And still I cannot tell her.

She sighs. "Baby, I know, but … being there won't change anything. It might even make it worse."

Strangely, a laugh bubbles up from inside me. "Worse? How can it possibly get any worse?"

To which she has no real answer, none that would make any sense. And, truthfully, I don't know what going will accomplish. It won't bring him back; I know that. It may not even bring the closure that everyone keeps talking about, as if seeing him will let me shut the door on this part of my life.

But I have to go.


"Your mother doesn't want you to go," my father adds, later that say.

"I know. We talked about it." Obviously, so have they.

"You liked him, didn't you?"

"He was my best friend."

My father gives me some kind of look. "You two were awfully close, weren't you?"

Images of those nights, those wonderful nights, cascade through my head, the two of us, entwined, linked in passion that seemed boundless, so bonded that we couldn't tell where one of us ended and the other began, both in body and in spirit.

"Yes," I respond.

My father gives me another kind of look. "Andrew …"

"Yes?"

"Is there - is there anything you need to tell us?"

How would I even start? What would it do to them for me to tell them? What would it mean for me, that they know?

"No," I respond.


I go; I'm not alone - many dozens of us are there. Hannah's there; I think she alone knows the greater truth that Jacob and I share. Shared.

Share.

There are his brothers and sisters, so much like him, handsome and beautiful and silent and strong, closed into themselves, unable or unwilling to speak to any of this, a far-too-common thing hitting far too close to them.

There is his mother, Miriam, astonishing and regal in her stoic, angry misery … her baby, her youngest, taken from her far too soon. She is surrounded by more of her family, her brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts to Jacob.

There is his father, strangely calm in this, seemingly untouched. What must he think now? Does he grieve? Is that grief tempered with some kind of … relief, that his son, in his eyes irretrievably flawed, is now gone? I can't think that anyone would be such a monster, know that I am painting him with the brush Jacob had wielded.

There is, walking by himself, another man, in his thirties, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Jacob's father … and I realize, with a jolt, that this is him, the uncle that Jacob could never talk about, the man his own brother - Jacob's father - had disowned, simply for the sin of loving men.


We sit in the back of the church, in an island of ourselves, strangers here, bound to the rest of them only by what I can see up at the front of the church: Jacob's coffin, open, with him inside it.

His father is in fine fettle, now, arms upraised, mellifluous voice echoing off the plaster walls of the church, calling down the divine and the numinous. His words are the words I would expect to hear, describing a stranger, someone not the Jacob I know. Nothing about how talented he was, how gentle he was, how beautiful he was.

I can see his uncle from where I sit, can see his bowed head and his shoulders working out his grief in silent tears and helpless shaking. Around us, others join in, echoing their preacher, strange ejaculations of sound: entreaties to their god. Thank you, I imagine them saying. Thank you for taking him and not us.

Music, then, after the words … and this is better, perhaps. Jacob loved music, loved these songs, even as he had despised that which had given them life. He went somewhere else when he sang, eyes closed, standing in front us but not with us, transported to some greater realm of emotion. I know some of the songs, sing those that I can, mouth the words as best I can of the ones less familiar.


And then it's over. We are released back into ourselves, left now to understand this thing as we are able. I envy those able to hand off their grief to their maker and go on. I stand, wait for those next to me to file out … and then I see that the congregation is moving forward, to the front of the church and Jacob's coffin, and I freeze.

Hannah nudges me, nods at the coffin. "Are you going to …?"

The thought that I can do that never occurred to me. "Should I?"

Hannah turns to face me; something dark flashes across her face. "Nobody has any more right than you do, Andrew."

I cannot not do this; I know that. That doesn't mean that I want to. That is not Jacob up there, I know. It is only the shell of him, the home that he inhabited, however briefly. I move along with the others, up to the front, my heart hammering, knowing without knowing what I will find there. Time is a sustained chord between where I am and where he is, and with each step it grows stronger and more defined and will find its completion only when I am standing directly over him.

By degrees he is revealed; glimpses, first, seen between the bodies of the living … and then more fully: hands, first, clasped over his chest, his feet encased in shining black patent leather, shoes I never saw on him, picked out at the last moment because something proper had to be put on him. And the suit, as well, expensive and well-tailored, another uniform.

And, then, his face. His face. His face.

Eyes closed in a sleep from which he will not awaken. Proud brow, proud nose. Bowed lips; even now there is a ghost of a smile on them, the way they always seemed to suggest that.

Hannah grasps my hand, squeezes it; she knows what I am feeling. My breath hitches in my chest and bright, hot tears blur my vision.

Wake up, I think. Wake up, goddamn it, wake up, wake up.

I don't have much time, here. I must share him with these others who do not know him as I know him; how can they? He is not, to me, what he is to them, to his mother and father, to his brothers and sisters, to his extended family. Of necessity closed to them, at least this part of himself, the part that loved me, the part that enabled him to do the things that we did with each other, to say the things we said to each other, to be the person we had to be with each other.

Now gone and gone and gone. Jacob had been the first one, they said, to fall, had been startled by the boy creeping out of the woods, cradling the gun. Had he smiled? And what must Jacob have thought, to watch the boy, unlimbering the weapon, priming it, steadying it, aiming it, firing it? We heard it, that first sound, like a cough, like someone trying to clear his throat.

Others crowd me out, here, and I know they have as much right to be here as I do.

And I do what I must, the only thing I can do. I bend down, touch those closed eyes and that stilled mouth and that proud nose. I bend down and say the only thing I can say - I love you - and I kiss his forehead and its cold, obsidian darkness. The sustained chord finds its resolution in the hammering in my chest and the tears streaking my face.

I love you.

I imagine a glitter of silver on my mouth.

Something in the crowd changes as they watch this, watch me. Confusion, followed by the most painful and perfect clarity as they understand who I am and what I am.

"No …" I hear his father hiss. "No!"

I raise up; our eyes meet across the span of the coffin, and I can see it in his eyes, the thing he has denied for so long, now made real and inescapable. A cloud of dark anger suffuses his face; his mouth purses with that same anger. He grips the side of the coffin, possessing it; I can see his hands quivering with impotent strength. But he will never own this, will never own Jacob, will never own us.

"No!" he whispers, one last time.

And I go.


Hannah trails behind me as we leave the church … sensing, perhaps, that I need to be alone with this. I'm not sure what I need, right now; I am hollow inside. Half of me - the better half, I think - has been hacked away from me with the dullest of blades.

There is, behind me, a voice, not Hannah's.

"Wait." The sound of footsteps, nearing. "Please, wait."

I turn, and it's him, the uncle. He smiles, but his eyes are still red and raw from weeping. As, I think, are mine.

"You're him, aren't you?" the man asks.

I nod; we both know what he means.

"He … talked about you, you know. With me. When he could."

I hold out a hand. "I'm Andrew."

"I know. I'm Duane." He takes my hand, grips it.

We look at each other as men - and, this day, I am a man, have crossed that threshold of loss that marks all such passages - like us do, joined by this strange thing coursing through us. He is older than I, more … accustomed to this kind of life even as I am not, but I now realize that this is not a hierarchical kind of thing. Each of us brings the same things into this. Each of us is an equal.

"You remind me of him," I say.

Duane nods; a smile ghosts his lips. "We used to joke about it. It always felt like we were … brothers, I think, rather than uncle and nephew."

"Your brother …"

Duane stops smiling, makes a kind of apology with his face. "Yes. He never could …"

"Even with his own brother …"

"Yes," Duane answers. "Even with his own son." He shakes his head. "Stupid man."

People mill past us; I can see them staring at us out of the corners of their eyes, can hear furtive whispers, no doubt about the two of us and why we should be talking to each other, on this day, in this place. I hear, faintly, a murmured " … faggot …" from one stranger to another. Duane shakes his head, rolls his eyes.

"If I had a nickel for every time I heard that …"

"Right …" I sympathize.

"You'll have to get used to it."

"I would have," I answer. "If he'd …" lived. With Jacob at my side, I know, I could have endured anything.

Duane reaches out, grasps my shoulder, and tears threaten again. "How long did you have with him?"

"Six months," I whisper. "Six months."

"Not long enough. But," he sighs, "it never is."

So, for him, too, there's been some kind of loss. How deep, I don't know; it feels awkward to ask, in the middle of this crowd. People are still staring at us, trying to figure this out.

And, then, here is Jacob's father, the Right Reverend Wilkins, this man's brother. With him is Jacob's mother.

The two men stare at each other, separated by a span of years and silence, separated by an ideology based on nothing but mistrust. Neither says anything for a long, awkward moment. Then, Jacob's mother nudges her husband's arm, getting him off dead center.

"Duane …" he begrudges, barely murmuring the word.

"Zachary …" Duane offers, his voice clear and calm.

"The two of you …" Zachary continues, his gaze flickering to me and Hannah. Back to me.

"The two of us what, Zachary? Say it."

"Get out of this church, both of you. You don't belong here."

"I came for Jacob, Zachary. Not you."

"Jacob …" his father breathes. "Was that you, responsible for him being …?"

Duane smiles, slowly, and behind the smile which is not a smile is a threat and a promise: don't ever say that again. He shakes his head, opens his mouth to speak.

And I leave. I spin on my heel and walk away from this thing. I can't take any more of it: fighting, anger, pain. I know that Duane and I aren't really done speaking about this, but I don't care. Hannah, taken by surprise, follows me; I hear the thump of her heels as she struggles to keep up.

"Andrew …" she calls out. I keep going. "Andrew! Slow down! Please!"

I don't stop until we're in the parking lot; in the hot summer morning the cars sparkle and shine as they begin to line up for the cortège that will transport Jacob to the cemetery. That, I don't know if I want to be a part of. I don't think I can bear seeing him stuck underground, trapped there for eternity, in a box. I don't think it's what he would have wanted. Fire seems more appropriate for this; a hot flame, smoke and ash rising up, liberated, free.

Hannah catches up with me only when we get to her car. She looks at me across the roof of the car as she unlocks the door.

"Let's go. I need to get out of here," I say.

Wordlessly, we get in, buckle our seatbelts. Hannah pushes the start button and the car rumbles quietly to life. She puts the car in gear and maneuvers it around the growing line of cars and onto the highway. Our progress is measured in small goals, easily achievable; do this, then this, then this. Hannah drives smoothly, with confidence.

This day will end up with me at home, in my room, alone, unwilling and unable to talk about it. Hannah will want to stay, will think that she needs to, that it will be her duty to stay with me and get this thing out.

I will tell her, not unkindly, that I don't want that, that I need to be alone, that I need to yield to the red-black darkness hovering just at the edge of my vision, and that I need to let it overwhelm me, because there is, right now, today, no other option.

now|

"No more, please," I whisper, my voice sticking in my throat. "I can't."

"There is nothing more," he responds, quietly, in very nearly a whisper. "It's done."

Yes, I think. There is nothing more.

I sit there, on the couch. The pain of that day burns off of me like morning dew under the onslaught of the rising sun. I think to reach out for it, keep it, keep the fire of it, but it escapes my grasp, drifts to odd corners of the room, settles there for a moment, then slips into the hidden spaces of the house.

Now, I know, is the time for questions. So many, and I don't know where to start, and I know they're all just going to sound stupid and sophomoric, the worst kind of wishful thinking.

"What are you?" The obvious one, low-hanging fruit.

He thinks about it. "I'm Jacob. Me."

"But you're dead. Aren't you?"

He shrugs. "I guess."

"You guess. You mean you don't know?" I think about that day. "The last time I saw you, you looked pretty dead to me."

He thinks about it for a moment. "That part of me was."

"That part of you. What does that even mean?"

"I told you that it would be hard to explain."

"Are you alive or not, Jacob?"

"I'm as alive as I need to be, Andrew."

I blow out an exasperated breath. "I give up."

He smiles. "Don't do that."

"Why not?"

"Because you're not done. Despite what you may think."

Does he know? I wonder. About … everything that has happened to me since he left. The dark days, even darker nights, tense silences because I knew that if I said anything, it would be a scream. Unburdening myself to everyone around me, whether or not they wanted to hear it. Friends, teachers, my parents … all looking at me out of the sides of their eyes, thinking I couldn't tell. But I could. I could hear them thinking is he going to make it? When will he break? And what will we do with him when he does?

Hannah … thank the gods for Hannah. Ever-patient, ever-present, she is perhaps the only one who knows what Jacob and I truly were to each other and what his leaving has done to me. She had not been there, that day, had spent it getting wisdom teeth extracted, had seen the horror and pain of it only after the fact, on the television, or talking to friends who were there. And to me.

I turn back to Jacob, sitting there, patiently. "What is it like, where you are?"

He scrunches his face up, thinking. "It's … I don't know. There, but not there. I don't have a … home, I guess. Not like you think of it. I don't … belong anywhere." He picks and chooses his word like a person walking at night on an unfamiliar and rutted country road. "It's like I'm a part of everything and everything is a part of me. I don't really even have a body. I don't need it." He stands up, gestures at himself. "Do you recognize these clothes?"

I think about it. I know I've seen them before … but then I understand. "You were wearing them. The day that you …" I look down at his feet, at those rainbow shoes.

"Yes. The funny thing is, is that this all that I am, now."

I frown my confusion. He goes on. "What I mean is, is that this shell that you see is all of me. There's no body home here, so to speak. There's no body under these clothes."

"That sounds … terrible."

He shrugs. "Eh … it's not so bad. I don't have to worry about my body, because I don't have one."

"But you're speaking. That means you must have … I don't know … lungs and a voice box and teeth and …" I try to think of all the mechanisms necessary for human speech.

"Well, I don't know. I'm not sure that I'm even speaking. At least, not in the way you think of it. I need you to hear what I have to say, and … well, you do."

Once again, I wonder if this is all just some stupid, ridiculous dream. Am I there on the couch, hallucinating, conjuring Jacob and all of this out of some absurd need to be shriven for my most original and abject sin: that I lived and he did not? Thinking about that leads me to my next question.

"Is it … heaven? Hell?"

"Neither, I think," he answers. "I never feel like anyone's watching over me. I don't feel driven to do anything. It's … well, if I'm curious about something, I go see it."

"Something like … another part of the world?"

He smiles. "Oh … much, much more than that. I can look at a planet or a star or a galaxy or … whatever, and I can think I want to go there, and then I go there."

"Seriously."

"It's the most wonderful thing. The whole universe is open to me … to us, I suppose. I'm not alone."

"So, why are you here?"

"I told you why. To help you."

"To help me get over you."

He frowns and smiles at the same time. "Not get over … unless that's what you want to do. More like, understand, or incorporate, or … well, you know. Assimilate."

"Compartmentalize."

"If you wish. Something similar to that, maybe."

"Do you think it worked?"

"I don't know, Andrew. You tell me."

I think about it. It's hard to catalogue the various levels of pain - especially psychological pain - but the hard, hot node of … well, blackness, that exists in the back of my head and plays the events of that day over and over every time I close my eyes is … not gone, exactly, but weaker. The blackness is now weathered to a kind of indeterminate gray. I remembered learning how pearls were made; the oyster works at some kind of irritation and coats it with layers and layers of itself, over a long period of time, until something of beauty is made.

"I feel different. Good different."

He smiles. "Well, then my work here is done."

We look at each other for a long moment. So much I need to say to him … perhaps so much that I need to hear from him, but does any of it matter, any more? I cannot undo the past; nor, I suspect, can he, even with his newfound abilities.

"The coldness …" I start.

He nods. "An unfortunate side effect. I'm not sure I understand it, but it takes a lot of … energy, I guess, for me to do this, to be in this particular form in this particular place for this particular amount of time."

"Does it hurt you?"

"Nooo … not exactly. But it isn't pleasant for me, either."

"Where do you go, next?"

"My parents. Well, my mother, at least." He frowns. "My father can still rot in hell, for all I care." The frown flips into his goofy grin. "Which tells you something about this not being heaven or hell. As far as I can tell, I'm still not an angel. I imagine that angels are a little more … forgiving, perhaps."

I smile back. "I never thought you were."

I hare away from any more questions. This all sounds like the worst kind of science fiction or fantasy: a lover returned from the dead in the guise of some celestial being. I don't believe any of that and I'm sure that Jacob doesn't either … and he had an entire lifetime - well, seventeen years of it - under the thumb of his father to have it worked out of him.

There is, then, a hissing, popping spark of light, gone almost before I notice it, but it leaves a glob of violet haze obscuring my vision, and a strange ozone-like tang in the air.

"What was that?" I ask.

Jacob looks troubled. "I … I think I have to go."

"Have to go?" I stress. "I thought you said that nobody was in control."

"It's not that. It's … I can't do this too much longer. Be here. Be … this." Abruptly, he shakes his head; waves of cold expand out, and the cacophony of near-voices increases. Strangely, he grins. "Sorry. I get … lost in it, sometimes. I let it overwhelm me." He steps away from the window, hugs himself, looks down at the floor, then back up at me. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have been cleared for landing. Please stow your electronic devices and put your tray tables in their upright and locked positions. Please check the integrity of your seat belt. We will be on the ground shortly."

I know what he's doing. It's what he's always done, translate his pain and anguish into humor, to lessen its strength, beat it into submission. It's how he always dealt with his family and how they treat him. I understand that; humor is a much easier place to work from than pain. But right now, humor is not what I want or need, and I swallow against a tightening throat and a tremble in my limbs, signs that I recognize.

"It's a joke to you," I hiss. I know that my anger at him is not because of his joking. It is because this is it; after he leaves me, I will never see him again, except in my dreams.

Jacob takes a step back, eyes going wide in concern. "It's not a joke, Andrew. But, if it is, you have to learn to take it."

I rise, go to him, fury hot and blinding inside me, fighting the coldcoldcold leaping off of him in waves. I reach out, ready to strike, to make him feel some small part of that pain that I feel and have felt ever since his leaving. With a motion too quick to see, he grabs my wrist, holds it; there is an icy bolt of pain, but I have endured greater.

He turns my arm over, baring my wrist, looks down at it, at the silvered tracks of the knife, there, reaches out for my other arm, bares that wrist and the twinned lines there, still raw and red, an arcane alphabet of the deepest indigo of misery. I wrote those words upon myself, thinking them the last I would ever, ever need to utter. I know that I have somehow wounded him as I had wounded myself.

I hear, then, a low, guttural cry, think it me but, no, it's from him, his understanding of what I had done to myself that day, when I could sink no lower, take nothing more from what my life had become.

"No!" he shouts at me, shaking my arms in his grasp. "No! No!" His face is dark with his shock and anger. It's not denial; he can see the evidence, plain as day. It's more an admonition, a warning: do not do this to yourself ever again! it says. And I feel shame burning on my face.

"Then, what?" I demand. "What is left to me?" I can see my breath jetting out, in the cold, can almost hear the moisture falling from it, crystals of ice clicking down through the darkness like shards from a shattered mirror.

"This," he whispers, holding my left palm up against his forehead.

"This," he whispers, holding my right palm to his chest, to where his heart would beat, if it could.

And then, the circuit is complete between us. We are enveloped in a curl of light and a skirl of sound, the sound of many, many voices, too many to count, but I can understand them all. In response, I shout myself back at them, over and over, the sound of my voice drowning out the others, forcing them to listen.

But they've heard it before. They rally and shout me down; what they have to say is more important than what I have to say. They tell me what they are, what they've experienced …

The light increases, becomes a palpable thing, sliding over and around and through me, through Jacob, whose eyes glow like topaz, whose skin glows like wood smoke and fire, whose teeth glow like pearls in most limpid water.

Take me with you, I think.

"Take me with you," I whisper.

"Take me with you!" I shout.

"I cannot, Andrew." I open my mouth to protest, but he grips me tighter. "If I could, I would, but I can't. You have to do this by yourself."

"I cannot, Jacob," I throw back at him. "If I could, I would, but I can't. Please, take me."

He smiles, but there is sadness in it, and tears in his eyes glitter, and he shakes his head.

No.

And then, there is a clap of sound like thunder, and another, and I am released from his grasp to fall to the ground as an onrushing, roaring wave of purest nothing surges towards me and subsumes me. Before I am taken under, into the abyss, I look at him as he looks back at me, eyes infinite with sadness and longing.

And with that last look, he … loosens, comes apart, atomizes, fragments. Pieces of him rise up and into some kind of current, dancing and quivering in the air before drifting towards the front door of the house and here, I think, is the resolution denied him earlier, at the funeral, when he'd been secreted away under the earth by a father unwilling to let his son be free.

later|

I rise slowly up through levels of awareness into early morning and the first hint of dawn. I'm still in the living room on the couch, still in my clothes from yesterday, but now there is a blanket draped over me and my shoes are off my feet and on the floor. Had I done that? Last night comes back to me in fits and starts and half-remembered images and the irresistible call of memory, all seen through a veil of tears and anger and sadness.

I understand almost nothing of what Jacob had tried to tell me, to show me. That singular blast of … whatever it had been, when I touched him, had been like touching a live wire. I hold my hand up, look at it, flex it. It appears normal, feels normal. I don't know what I expected to see.

I look down at Sheba, curled at my feet; she stares back at me with her yellow eyes, rises, stretches, comes towards me with a quiet purr and a little meep of greeting: good morning and I'd like some of that tuna from yesterday's lunch and I left you a little surprise on the back porch from when I went hunting and you're welcome, in cat. I turn onto my side, let her come to me, let her butt my chin with her head, scratch her behind the ears. There is a quiet assurance in her animal simplicity; it would be interesting to know how she views the world, and us.

I can hear my parents upstairs, getting ready for the day. Doubtless, my mother had been the one to unfurl the blanket over my sleeping form, take off my shoes. What had they walked into, my parents, when they'd come home? Had Jacob been as apparent to them as he had been to me? Did they remark on the uncommon chill? Had he made himself known to them in some fashion?

Had he been as real to them as he'd been to me?

To that I have no answer. Jacob had felt as real to me as he needed to be, as real as I needed him to be. I still don't know what had been fevered fantasy and what had been waking dream, but I understand now why he had come back … or I had conjured him, even if I will never understand that briefest glimpse of his world.

I want to believe. I want to think that there is a world beyond this world. Hannah does, I know, although it is very hard to get her to admit that. It's not religion; she's as much a heathen as am I … but it's some kind of surety of belief that I envy. I don't know if I'll ever tell her any of what I think happened last night and this morning.

But I do know this: there is, now, at the core of me, a calm, a quiet … a bright, hot core of strength. I no longer feel the need to deny myself happiness, to hurt myself, to will myself into nothingness. To give myself to that vast and infinite ocean of indifference.

I will never forget him. I know that. He is as much a part of my life now as he was back then, when we first kissed, when we first made love, when I saw his too-still form sprawled on the sidewalk. He will always be a part of my life.

Footsteps coming down the stairs are my mother's. She rounds the corner, sees that I am awake. There is, as there as been for far too long, a wary hopefulness on her face: which version of my son will I see this morning? A certain amount of dread in it, always. I've put her - both of them - through a lifetime of misery and anger and hurt, and for that I will always be sorry.

"Good morning," she wishes me. "You … well, you looked so peaceful there I didn't want to disturb you." Her greeting is tentative, tinged with a hope that has been cast aside far too often in the past few months.

I smile. I smile and I smile and I smile, and it is real and it is now. "Good morning."


Winter yields to spring as the world awakens again. I, like the world, am caught in some ill-defined and indefinite space, waiting for something to happen … but it is a strangely peaceful and pleasant place to be. I know that there will be change and newness and I look forward to it.

Perhaps that is the best thing that Jacob was able to give me.

I imagine him now as some kind of being made of light, which is the messenger of all things. I imagine that he can travel across space and time and that his life has purpose and that he has been to all sorts of strange and wonderful places and has talked to beings fascinating and unlike anyone we have ever known. If you want to call him an angel, I would not stop you.


I am wrong. There is, in the palm of my right hand, some kind of mark, a circle, perfectly round, dark red, small enough to overlook, large enough for me to know that it is not usual. There is a kind of warmth to it, a not-unpleasant tingling to it, that manifests itself when I need it to. It took a few days to show up, but it is unmistakable.

much later|

I have always found solace in running. I'm biased, of course, but it's always seemed to me to be the purest of athletic pursuits, nothing between you and your goal, no equipment, no uniforms - except only what you need for modesty - no intricate bible of rules and regulations. You go somewhere, you start running. You stop when you're done. I think swimming perhaps comes closest to running … but there, you need a body of water. With running, all you have to do is step outside.

It's not solace I seek, now. I feel, finally, at peace with myself and with Jacob and with what we were, and still are. I have only the rest of this year to get through and then I will be somewhere else, will be someone else, the next part of myself. For once, I look forward to that.

I imagine, always, when I run, some luminous line stretching ahead of me: my route, the path I will travel. I know, deep down, that it is I who choose my path, but this is a kind of reassurance to me, a small sign of … oh, I don't know … destiny, perhaps. If not quite that, then something close.


I told them, recently, my parents and my family, told them what I was and what I had done and what Jacob had meant to me. Turns out they knew, and were just waiting for me to say it.

I don't know if I'm angry with them for saying nothing, or pleased with them for letting me get there on my own. The skies did not darken, the wind did not howl through the trees, the world did not end. I did not sprout horns, did not devour anyone's children, did not experience either fire, or brimstone.


I grew three inches over the past year. I am now officially considered tall. I have had to adjust to this newfound thing; my body feels different. I am leaner, but I think I am stronger. I run differently, now; my legs seem to have ideas of their own about how to move the rest of me along, and I let them do what they must. They seem to have a better idea of it than I do.


I dream still about Jacob, but I dream about other boys, too. There is, as yet, no one else under the faultless cerulean dome of my solitude, but there are storm clouds gathering on the horizon.


This week, I realize, is the anniversary of Jacob's death. Spring will, now, be for me always associated with his passing and the start of a year of the most harrowing darkness … but spring's promise will always be there to temper it. Spring is early, this year; daffodil and jonquil have already bloomed, tulip is in the offing and iris and lily not far behind, the floral clockwork ticking away the days and weeks, waiting for the luxurious heaviness of summer.

I am not alone in this park, but at this time of day there aren't very many of us; chiefly, it's mothers singly and in pairs, walking infants in strollers, chatting on their phones or with their friends, coffee in hand.

I suppose I am scandalous to them, if they even see me; I'm wearing nothing but a pair of gossamer-thin running shorts and battered shoes. The rest of me is clad only in the wash of clear sunlight. This is when running is at its most pure for me; I would eschew clothing if I could, run in nothing but skin and sweat and what raiment with which the gods have graced me.

There is, up ahead, one other like me, a runner; he, too, is nearly naked in the warmth of the morning, in this strange camaraderie that runners share, solitude nipped at the edges by the need to belong, to be numbered. This runner is slightly slower than I, and I know that I will overtake him.

I am close enough now to hear the pat-pat-pat of his footsteps on the rubbery path that circumnavigates this park. I dance around a mom-and-stroller (the sound of her conversation, loud and strident, dopplers away behind me) and then here he is. I am so close that I can hear his steady breathing, can smell the fresh tang of his sweat. As I pass, I register an image: blackhairandbeardandchestandbelly, oliveskinsinewstraining, gauntthinness, and then I am past him, can hear his grunt of surprise that I have lapped him, and I run on.

He falls behind me, but there is the twinge in my side, the stitch that tells me that I am nearly done for and need to stop, that I have pushed myself too far. Tennis courts, swing sets, picnic tables, field houses all fall behind me, as well. Up ahead, I know, is a place where I can rest and get some water. After that, I'll trot home.


The water is clear and cold and sweet as I gobble it down, greedily, letting it dribble down my front. I palm a bit of it, run it across my scalp and neck. I am a dolphin, swimming in endorphins, sated, happy, relaxed.

And here is the man I passed, stopping here. I slip away from the water, find a bench, sprawl on it, let the day unfold. My gaze flickers across the man's thin form, flickers away. Flickers back. An indulgence.

He sinks to the fountain, drinks, rises, wipes his mouth and beard - water droplets caught there like diamonds - turns to me.

"How long have you been running?"

I smile. "Oh, since I was nine or ten, I think."

He chuckles. "No, I mean - well, this morning. Today."

"Oh. Not long. Long enough, maybe."

"You have an interesting form," he offers, then blushes as he understands the deeper meaning. First shot across the bow? I can't tell. Almost unconsciously, I run a nail across the palm of my right hand.

"I used to run in high school. Not sure if I'll keep it up."

"Oh, you should. You look like one of those guys born to it." He grins. "I have to work at it, but I still enjoy it. At least, I think I do." I chuckle along with him, look more closely at him. The instant of passing him yields to more refinement. He is older than I am, but not by much, I think. There is a fierceness in his face, his eyes, some wild thing there, restive and alive. He does not have the sweetness of Jacob, but there's something there. Something just as beautiful.

The rest of him is the sinewy, wiry body of an inveterate runner: nothing wasted, no excess, no bulk, nothing that is not amenable to running. Runners cannot help but to run. When he's distracted by something, I drop my gaze to his midsection, to the hint of his sex caught there in his shorts, look away, blushing. Another indulgence.

Jacob, I think, I'm sorry.

I stand and face him. I don't quite know what I'm doing, but if I've misread things, I'm sure he'll let me know. I want him to see that I am, in at least one way, the same as him. I, too, am a runner, with all that that implies. Whether or not we share other sensibilities remains to be seen.

I watch him watching me.

Then, a decision. A proffered hand. "I'm Nathan."

Then, a decision. A proffered hand. "And I'm Andrew."

"You … think maybe you have one more lap in you, Andrew?"

I think, maybe, I do.

Voting

This story is part of the 2018-2019 story challenge "Recovery". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 4 January to 25 January 2019 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.

This challenge is to write a story based on the recovery of one or more of the cast from a dark place. There is no picture. Instead we are looking for tales which are able to paint a dark word picture and show recovery and hope.

The Messenger of All Things

You may tick as many statements as you wish. Stories my also be discussed in detail on the Literary Merit forum

I will seek this author's work out
It grabbed my attention early on
I had to know what happened
I identified with at least one of the cast
Gritty - it had an edge to it
Realistic - it could have happened that way
I found it hard to follow
Good characterisation
I feel better for having read it
It was romantic
It was erotic
Too much explicit sex
It had the right amount of sex, if there was any
Not enough explicit sex
I have read and enjoyed other work by this author
It was sufficiently dark, but the recovery was missing something
It was not sufficiently dark, but the recovery was great
It was both sufficiently dark and had a great recovery


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