Readers, if you want some songs to read by, I have a few playlists on Spotify. These are songs that have inspired be, and that speak to the nature of the story, the setting, and the characters. In the case of No Distance Greater than the Stars, a few of the songs are actually referred to in the book. They should make for some great music to read by. You can also see the bands I follow, and maybe discover someone new that way. Happy listening!
After a land has long since become enshrouded in legend, and the light of its glorious past is filtered by the dust of ages, it falls into danger of facing yet another peril. And while that peril should like to disprove the realm’s glory, often it is that a greater legend is born. In a world where history is no different from legend, and prophecies are promises from the gods, unyielding in their faithfulness, reverence and wonder shall never cease. The legends and prophecies written in holy text might not be fully understood, but they are true nonetheless. Even the most esoteric of tales cannot be dissolved by time; the future shall look back upon them to watch the warrior emerge from the flames and tears to prove the might of his spirit.
Legend, in all its richness of glory and tragedy, had birthed the most majestic kingdom known to Lorata. In the grassy plains that roll from the cliffs of Dragonridge Mountains to the waves of Blueshade Ocean, Onsira stood proud and deeply respected. Its rich soil brought verdant life to the plains, dotting it with woodlands cut by streams and ponds. Onsira had long been ruled by a monarchy, its bloodline tied to the greatest of all heroes: Loracaz, Champion of Jenh.
Generations had passed since the hero’s great feat, years that were ruled in peace under centuries-old traditions. Onsira was a kingdom governed by elves, but it welcomed fae-kind as friends. It had even found peace and mutual respect with the dragons, difficult though their history had been. It was a safe and honorable kingdom, said to be blessed by Goddess Jenh herself, and its people prospered.
Late in the fifth millennium of Lorata’s recorded history, that age-old peace came to its end. For those who believed that it would never leave the kingdom, it was a juncture of utmost tragedy, the desperate culmination of the actions of His Royal Majesty, King Z’Lé. For the elves who had put their trust into his dream of uniting the four realms of magic and the four races, he had become a figure of cruel betrayal. His people had feared him ever since the day that he invited ambassadors from Thiizav, the kingdom known for it devotion to Métius. The king’s people began to worry that their queen had made the wrong choice in taking Z’Lé as her beloved.
The Onsiran citizens protested the collection of taxes in order to support the construction of a temple for the one god who had no place in Onsira: Métius, ruler of the Abyss and all the demons who resided therein. Complaints about the taxes brought King Z’Lé’s wrath, and he did not hesitate in jailing those who tried to prevent supplies from arriving at the site of the temple. It had been an act of treason, the king decreed, to prevent the unification that he so desired to create. He had lost the mercy that Onsira had been known for, and cared not that he was feared and reviled.
All the while, Queen Arialla could do nothing to stop him. She did not agree with the harshness of Z’Lé’s punishments, but the goal of unification that Z’Lé sought was to important, and too well under way to get in the way of. She was as nervous as any of her citizens were about demon king, but if she let that fear guide her, how could she bring about unity? It was for that dream that she had chosen Z’Lé, and she could not give up on it.
This logic, however, denied something greater. If Arialla had wanted deny the nobles from Thiizav their embassy and keep Métius out of her kingdom, the king would have gone ahead without her blessing. King Z’Lé had begun to dominate the throne long before commissioning the Temple of Métius to be built. No decision was final without his word, and while the queen laid resting, he would decree many of the laws that would bring his goal of unification to completion. In the name of the alliance of the gods, he broke from one Onsiran tradition after another without even a thought.
Zarrek, the second son of the royal family, grew up as the dark temple was completed. King Z’Lé took the child with him to oversee the raising of its twisted spires, and though he was just a babe, Zarrek watched, transfixed, as each block of rich black stone was set into its place. It worried Arialla to know that her son was so close to that source of evil. He would not bend to her concerns, though. Although the queen did not want her sons to partake in the darker aspects of the unification, the king insisted upon it in the name of true unity.
With all that he had done, King Z’Lé had forever changed the face of Onsira. Its proud heritage was now hardly better than a memory, and the people were resentful that they could not contest what their king was doing. He expected them to forgive what Métius had done to Goddess Jenh centuries ago, and he decreed that devotion to her alone would harm Onsira’s chances for a unified future.
In truth, Jenh was the pillar of the kingdom, and Arialla was a direct descendant of her champion, the realm’s founding ruler: Loracaz I. Métius had captured the goddess ages ago, in an attempt to steal away her life and magic, and Loracaz had been the only one able to rescue her. Welcoming the lord of evil back, even in the name of unity, was an insult to the worshipers of the goddess.
Z’Lé overruled any concern for the threat of the demon lord by declaring that the legends and prophecies were too ancient to be trifled with. Jenh had forgiven the dragons, whose jealousy was the root of all acts committed against her. Even her promise that the great hero would return to Lorata, should Métius ever again threaten the world with his evil, seemed unnecessary. It was time for Onsira to grow into an empire of unity, rather than a simple kingdom devoted to a goddess.
When Zarrek was merely five years old, he was initiated into both the Temple of Jenh the Elemental Mother, and the Temple of Métius, Dark Destroyer and Lord of Demons. In the evening of that same day, the king announced that he would unite all of Manastaecies under his rule. He declared himself Emperor of Unified Onsira, and a new age was born. The old green banners were pulled down from the palace walls, and replaced with a new tapestry, one of Z’Lé’s own design. Instead of the traditional leaf, the imperial banner was a long, vertical tapestry that contained the symbols of all four deities, even the demon lord, sewn onto a background of pale grey.
Arialla, now forced to call herself empress, could now understand how he could go so far,
To Z’Lé, Onsira being ruled by an elvan family meant neglect for the dragons, and it was that neglect that had ignited anger in the hearts of the dragons of ages past. Being that he was from one of the mountain provinces, where dragons outnumbered the elves, he was the best authority on the current disposition of the flying creatures. Arialla had once trusted his conviction that the dragons should be welcome everywhere in Onsira. Nobody had ever suspected that it would come to this.
He who had begun as a charismatic, idea-laden man, able to win the heart of the princess, changed into an irascible, demanding, and vengeful beast of an emperor, more like a dragon than an elf. When Arialla had fallen in love with Z’Lé and made him her king, he had been a gentle ruler, his only request being that dragons and elves should learn to befriend one another. It had been a strange mixing at first, for most elves were frightened of such immense and powerful beasts, but Z’Lé had worked hard to create a peaceable relationship between the races.
It became apparent, however over the years that his initial success, and the subsequent trust placed upon him by the elves was only his method of preparing for the darker aspects of what he called unity. That unification seemed to lie primarily between Jenh and Métius, ignoring the other two faiths almost entirely. Though he’d allowed temples to the holy god of purity and the celestial goddess of the bards to be built, he took no interest in them, and not even Zarrek bothered to learn from the other two temples.
Z’Lé took no pains to insist that such sacred buildings be built, as he had for Métius. Where he had overseen the building of the black temple at every stage, he had appointed ministers to ensure that the other two were erected, and left them to make their own decisions. Even the funding for the Temple of Métius was far more generous than that budgeted for the Temples of Kearr and Aamh combined.
When the people of the land could no longer bear to live under Emperor Z’Lé’s cruelty, his unfair laws and extreme punishments, they began to beg of Arialla to make him cease his actions and restore the traditions and former laws of Onsira. To their dismay, she could do nothing, what with him dominating the throne. Even when she reminded Z’Lé that the elves were dying of hunger and sickness because of his demands, he asserted his power over her.
Matters only worsened after that. Z’Lé had amassed a powerful and innumerable following of loyal soldiers and noblemen over the years. Even the dragons were willing to follow his command. They believed in his dream, in the future that Z’Lé had promised them. His followers ignored what most called tyranny, insisting that it was part of the process of incorporating the four alignments; what good was a ruler with a pure heart in a kingdom that allowed Métius within its borders? Blindly, they supported him, defending him with their lives.
The hope of the people laid in the hands of Prince Loracaz II, Zarrek’s elder brother and the first child born to Arialla and Z’Lé. To finda way out from under the emperor’s tyranny, the citizens implored him instead of the empress. The prince was the first person to be named after Jenh’s champion in all the centuries since the hero’s daring feat. He had much in common with the legendary hero, greatest of which was his pure love and devotion for the goddess; he spent much of his time in the temple dedicated to Goddess Jenh, studying her magic and legends, and often left offerings for her on the royal altar.
What the Onsiran people now held most dear was this: ages ago, after Goddess Jenh had been rescued from the clutches of Métius, she had made a promise to the elves of Onsira: should evil ever again threaten the land, her champion would return. Loracaz was the one man who could put a stop to tyranny and suffering and banish Métius back to the Abyss. Even if the emperor did not believe in the prophecy, the elves and their fae brethren did, and they prayed each day that their prince would soon awaken to his destiny and restore Onsira to its age-old glory.
Monday was a quiet day. I went to work, fixed a few computers and small appliances, and helped get a couple more shelves organized in the back room. After work, I went to Justin’s aunt’s house. He and his cousins were at the kitchen table, each with their own snack and homework sheet. Justin’s mother was at work, but his aunt was there; once she let me in, she told Justin that he could take me upstairs as long as he did some more work and kept his door open, then went back to helping her children get their homework done.
“She will not let up on me!” Justin groaned once we were out of earshot of her. He flopped onto his bed. “All day long it’s been chores and homework.”
“That bad, huh?” I sat on the edge of his bed and rubbed his temples.
He looked up at me. “It’s way different than it was with David. He was thankful and made sure I was safe.”
“Your aunt doesn’t keep you safe?”
He groaned again. “I don’t mean she asks me to do dangerous things. Argh… But David checked on us and asked if we had enough supplies and listened to our opinions about stuff. Aunt Julia just wants things done her way.”
“Hmm… I guess it’s different running a household instead of a store. You’re washing dishes, not organizing her cabinets.”
“Shhhh, don’t give her any ideas! Whenever she thinks I’m not trying hard enough, she gives me another chore. After she took my cousins to school, it was dishes and worksheets, then laundry and math, then sweeping and more laundry, then I could read on the back porch until the floor was dry from her mopping. I couldn’t even watch T.V. during lunch, since we’re not allowed to eat on the couch, and she says if it’s not allowed at school, it’s not allowed here during school hours.”
“It sounds like she’s working you hard, Little Moon.” I finished rubbing his temples and moved on to his shoulders. “Do you want me to review what you got done?”
“She already did,” he groaned. “She would not let me leave anything incorrect or unfinished.”
“I see. Well, the school day is over. How much more do you have to do?”
“Umm… I think it was a science thing. She’s making me do one of each subject.”
I got up and looked through the stack of books on his desk until I found the science book. “Oh, this is a great topic,” I told Justin when I pulled out the first worksheet stuck among the pages. “Chemistry and solar fusion!”
Justin rolled onto his side and gave me a look that was somewhere between frustration and disappointment. “I know you think that stuff is really cool,” he said in a defeated tone, “but I don’t understand it. Even before the bullies wasted class time making fart jokes, I usually just read enough of the chapter to get the paper done.”
“They have no attention span at all, do they?” I sighed. “Maybe your aunt would let you watch ‘Nova’ or ‘Cosmos.’ They explain it so much better.”
He shrugged. “I don’t really want to. It’s not like I’m going into a science career. I’m not even going to college.”
That had been his stance for as long as I could remember. It wasn’t that he disliked knowledge, because he did get into something when he was actually interested in it. He also liked reading, as long as he could pick the book. When it came to college, however, he saw scholarly pursuits as lofty and out of his reach. I couldn’t completely fault him for that, because as much as I would have loved signing up for classes with him, college wasn’t for everyone.
“Did anything happen after I left last night, Little Moon?” I’d stayed for dinner after bringing him home, and the family had all been relaxed and cheerful. “You seem down today.”
Justin shrugged. “I just wish they were as nice to me as you are. Mom says I have to finish high school even if I don’t go to college, and Julia says I’m not allowed to talk about not going around her kids. I liked it better at your place.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “I’m low pressure compared to them. You should finish high school, though; it’s just ridiculous from them not to offer something safe that isn’t all this busy work.”
I was able to talk him through his situation enough that he got a little more schoolwork done for the day, but I was worried that he’d burn out pretty quickly if this was all he’d be doing every day until graduation. He wouldn’t talk to doctors, and his family had already made their terms clear, so I was going to end up being the one to really pull him through this. Not that I minded; that was what I’d gone there for. I only hoped the next few months wouldn’t be so full of struggle that he’d turn his back to his family.
We took a short walk through the neighborhood, enjoying the atmosphere as we talked, and got back around the time Justin’s mother returned from work. They had me stay for dinner again, which I was glad to accept. Afterwards, I sat with Justin on the porch swing until I had to head home and sleep. He was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to stay as late the next night, but he was understanding.
He didn’t let me leave without sharing a long kiss that spoke of affection and need for me. He practically clung to me, begging me to take him away from his sorrows without even using words. It took all of my strength to not sweep him into my arms right then and insist that Justin live with me, to promise to help him with his schoolwork, that it would be so much better if he were happy while he did it. But I knew better. I had to be better. Ms. Anderson needed me to be better, to be the right kind of guide and hero to her son.
“Good night, sweet prince,” I whispered, and gave him one last hug before I had to drive away.
For most of Tuesday, it was hard to focus on work. I had tried contacting my grandfather to ask him how late he planned to arrive, but he was notoriously difficult to contact. It was completely the opposite of when he contacted me. Eventually, I was forced to resign myself to letting him be the one to make all the moves.
My phone rang as soon as I pulled up in front of Justin’s house. I looked at the screen. Of course it was him.
“Hello?” I answered, trying not to sound too grumpy.
“My dear Emory,” my grandfather’s voice floated out.
“Yes, Grandfather, it’s me. I was meaning to ask you when you planned to drop by.”
“I’m here now,” he replied in his matter-of-fact way.
“What? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” I didn’t bother asking him how he’d gotten in; I already knew. “My landlord didn’t see you, did he?”
“Not at all,” he assured me. “You were kind enough to leave your curtains drawn.”
I half-wished I’d left all of the curtains open and flooded the place with daylight, but it would have been in vain, as he had plenty of help on hand.
“Are you on your way home?” he asked me.
“No,” I replied flatly. “I wasn’t expecting you until after sunset, so I’m about to spend some time with Justin.”
“Let it be only enough time to ensure that he is well, and come here post-haste.”
“My friend needs me, Grandfather,” I protested.
“You’ll have a lifetime to spend with him,” he replied, “and if you want him as safe as you claim, you need to listen to me.”
“Okay, I’ll just check in on him. It should only be an hour.”
“You have ten minutes,” he replied. “After that, I shall send Xanthus.”
“I don’t know why you still employ him,” I sighed. I turned off the car and got out. “He’s really crude sometimes.”
“Go to your lover, Emory,” my grandfather insisted. “We shall talk when you are done there.”
The call ended, and I shook my head. Grandfather still acted like a well-respected nobleman of ages past, which could be trying sometimes. I suppose I should have been grateful that he was so patient with me, but I was still frustrated that I had no say in what he had me involved with.
Justin ran outside to greet me; he must have been watching through the dining room window ever since my shift ended. He leaped into my arms and clung on as though for dear life.
“Blackthorne, get me out of here!” he cried, on the verge of tears.
“Little Moon,” I said as I wrapped my jacket around him and rubbed his back, “what happened?”
“Today was terrible!” he groaned.
“Tell me everything, sweet prince.”
“Aunt Julia made me pull weeds instead of letting me read! And she made me do that math paper the bullies had stolen from me, and then extra math after that.”
“I’m sorry she didn’t understand how painful those memories are,” I murmured. Why in the world was his aunt being so strict after what he’d been through?
“Then I fell asleep instead of eating lunch, and she called my mom and got me yelled at.”
I kissed the top of his head and held him closer. “That’s not really the best way to handle you not eating, is it? But why wouldn’t you eat?”
“It was soup,” he grumbled.
Well, that explained it; Justin hated soup of all flavors and varieties. He wouldn’t even eat ramen, though I could hardly blame him, as the only kind he’d ever tried were the plain, salty American brands. I’d tried inviting him to join my parents for dinner at an authentic ramen restaurant, but he was unwilling to try.
“I’d tell them not to make you eat it if I had any control,” I told him, “but since I can’t, will you at least try to keep your strength up?”
“I don’t wanna live in Cody anymore,” Justin whimpered into my chest.
“I know,” I whispered. By all the gods, I knew, and knowing broke my heart. “Oh, my sweet Little Moon…”
“Can I come with you?” he asked in a voice so small that I hardly heard him.
“My dearest prince…” I replied. I cupped his cheeks and looked down into the most beautiful brown eyes imaginable. Why today of all days? “You know I would take you anywhere in the universe if I could.”
“Why are you saying it like that?” His voice was trembling, his eyes red with tears. “Do you…”
“Please don’t cry, Little Moon. Your mother will be furious if I take you away right now.” And this couldn’t be how he ended up meeting my grandfather.
“I’ll do my schoolwork at your place,” he begged.
“I know you’d intend to, sweet prince, but you also know that I cannot make you do it if it pains you.”
“Being here pains me,” he grumbled.
“I know.” I kissed the top of his head again. “Give me some time, and I’ll try to find a way to prove to her that I can look after you.”
He shook his head and looked about ready to collapse into tears. “You’re not going to take me with you, are you?”
Looking into his eyes, I wanted to cry, too. I never, ever wanted to upset him; I’d have given him the moon if I could. “Not today,” I whispered.
“No,” he groaned, burying his face in my chest. “No, no, no, no, no. I’m not– Blackthorne, I can’t–”
“You can,” I insisted. “I need you to be brave, Little Moon.”
“Just a little longer,” I whispered, rubbing his back.
“B… Blackthorne,” he murmured.
He clung to my shirt as tightly as he could, but it seemed like that wasn’t enough to keep him upright. His legs gave out under him, and I had to catch him before he collapsed onto the ground. I lifted him into my arms, one behind his knees, the other near his upper back; he was as light as a feather.
“Did you even eat breakfast, Little Moon?” I asked him as I carried him back into the house.
He wrapped an arm weakly around my neck. “I think… some cereal,” he breathed.
That couldn’t have been enough; I would have to find a way for his family to offer him better food, and for him to eat even when I wasn’t around. None of us wanted him to end up in a hospital, and I could pretty much guarantee that he wouldn’t get any better in one. For now, all I could do was carry him upstairs and lay him in his bed.
“You keep pampering him like that,” a voice said behind me as I pulled the blanket over him, “and he’ll never get stronger.”
I looked up at her. I wanted so badly to tell her that some people aren’t as strong as others, that even if he did become a little hardier, he may never be as unbreakable as others appeared to be. She would take it as disrespect, though, and I couldn’t risk that. So I just nodded to her instead.
“I… I think he’s getting sick. He feels a little hot.”
She sighed. “Probably from crying about everything. Well, no use fighting with him now. My sister can check on him when she gets home.”
She was partly right, I thought. I was no med student, but I could tell that his depression wasn’t doing his immune system any favors, especially with the extra stress. There was encouragement, and then there was making him toil; was there really a reason he had to trudge along the hardest path?
I turned back to Justin as soon as his aunt left to return to the dining room. He squeezed my hand and looked up at me through hooded eyes.
“I love you,” he whispered.
“I know you do, Little Moon.”
“And you love me,” he added, his voice wispy and delicate. “I can feel it.”
“You’re right, sweet prince,” I agreed. “I love you more than words can say. You warm my days like the sun, and you light up my nights like the moon.”
Justin flushed and gave me a weak smile. “It’s in your eyes, too. They shine like silver whenever you look at me.”
“You look at me in the same way, you know.”
“Will you stay?” he asked me. “I never want to stop looking at you.”
“That’s very tempting, Little Moon, but you need to sleep, and I’ve stayed too long already.”
“Can I at least have a kiss before you go?”
He knew I couldn’t say no to that. He knew my lips would be locked with his in an instant, and that I would let him devour me until I was desperately tempted to give him everything. Justin tasted so perfect, so delicate and sweet, and he knew I would seek more of his taste.
“I’m not strong, you know,” he murmured when we parted. “I can’t be like you no matter how much they wish I was.”
“You don’t have to be, Little Moon,” I assured him. “All you have to do is try your best. Now close your eyes and sleep.”
Justin’s protest was interrupted by a long, drawn-out yawn. I tucked his blanket close around him and rubbed his back slowly as I hummed a song my mother used to sing to me.
“Mmmmm…” he murmured, “…like that.”
“Sssshhhh. Just rest, Little Moon.”
If I’d had a hand free, I might have checked the time on my phone. It was just as well; I knew I didn’t have long before Grandfather sent Xanthus to pry me away from Justin. I also understood that he knew I wouldn’t want to explain who Xanthus was– not to anyone, least of all Justin. I sighed and resigned myself to the idea that it would either be that, or the other thing I’d planned on never doing: using influence and suggestion to overcome any resistance Justin put up. He trusted me enough that he wouldn’t know the difference, but I would know, and I wasn’t proud of myself.
He was asleep within just a couple minutes, breathing as peacefully as a baby. I kissed his temple lightly and whispered into his ear before I left, closing the bedroom door behind me. I bade Justin’s aunt a brief farewell, and hardly a minute later I was on the road back to my temporary home.
Once I was in the driveway, I acted as calmly as I could so as to not alert the landlord that anything was going on. The guest house was dark when I slipped inside. I locked the door and hung up my keys and jacket before turning towards the rest of the room.
“Ah, dearest Emory!” a voice called while I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. “I told Xanthus that you would be along shortly. He was eager to meet the beautiful young man who’s moved your heart so well, but I managed to convince him to give you a few more minutes.”
‘Convince’ was no better a word for what he’d probably done than it was for how I’d gotten Justin to fall asleep so quickly. Still, this was not the man to argue semantics with.
“As grateful as I am for that, could you explain why you are sitting on my bed?”
“Well, I knew you wouldn’t want Xanthus to sit here,” my grandfather replied. “And while Matthias doesn’t have the same musk as my satyr ally, you would not want him in a place so personal as this.”
As I walked further in, I saw Matthias craning his head around to look up at me, his smooth brown hair pulled back tightly, as it usually was, and tied with a pale blue ribbon. He was lounging in my recliner, his booted feet propped up and looking as comfortable as I should have been just then. I gave him only the briefest nod. Xanthus, meanwhile, was in one of the tall chairs near the kitchen counter.
“So you came with the satyr,” I sighed, “and didn’t have him or Matthias dress for the location?”
“Let that show how well I trusted you to keep your commitment to meet with me,” my grandfather replied.
I shrugged; he may have had a point there. He wouldn’t risk Xanthus being seen as he truly was– with his curling horns and goat-like eyes– if he actually needed to send him after me. Matthias couldn’t be out in the daylight, and if Grandfather had thought that he might need to search for me at night, he’d have had him dress more like other people in the area, making him forego the ruffled white shirt and blue long-coat. His boots were like something out of a pirate movie and couldn’t have passed for any sort of fashion statement, especially with the navy-blue breeches he had on.
“How do you live like this,” Matthias asked, gesturing around the guest house, “when Lord Thorne has offered you an entire tower to yourself? Even my chambers back at the castle are larger than this.”
“I will not be kept and controlled like Rapunzel,” I snarled back. “Get out of my chair.”
Matthias moved languidly to pull the lever that would put the leg rest back down then stood up and smiled at me. “Your hair certainly is as long as hers.”
I rolled my eyes and shook my head. “You’re an idiot.”
The fact was, Matthias had a ponytail of his own; not nearly as long as mine, and his had curls and waves that reminded me of eighteenth-century paintings.
“Matthias,” my grandfather said, “if you incite Emory, I shall be forced to relieve you of your duties.”
Grandfather raised his palm. “Enough. His refusal of my offers does not give you leave to disrespect him.”
“They don’t need to be here, do they?” I asked, ignoring Matthias and his weak attempt at an apology. “There’s no reason for this meeting to be a headache.”
Grandfather looked from Matthias to Xanthus, then to me. “Very well. The both of you are dismissed.”
Xanthus got down from his chair and bowed low before my grandfather. “As you wish, my lord.”
“Do not try me, Matthias!” he snapped, getting to his feet. He rose up to his full height, straight and tall– several inches taller than me, in fact. “Do not make me regret giving you my blessing in taking a fledgling.”
Those words had Matthias kneeling in an instant. “I’m sorry, Master,” he whimpered. “I… I was…”
“Don’t try thinking up an excuse now. Go back to the castle and look after her. I can manage myself here alone.”
Grandfather made a simple gesture in the direction of the bathroom. It had been dark there before, but now it was absolute pitch blackness. Matthias rose and made his way to the shadows without turning his back to my grandfather, then bowed before disappearing through it. Xanthus followed him, ducking his head a little to keep from hitting it on the door frame. Once they were out of sight, Grandfather waved away the blackness, and the shadows returned to normal.
“It’s good to see you again, Emory,” he said, holding his arms open to offer an embrace.
I pursed my lips nervously, avoiding his gaze.
“I am here to help you,” he reminded me. “Of all the times I’ve come to you, have I not always helped you?”
I nodded, faint though the movement was. As much as I’d tried avoiding the reality of who he was and what that meant for my own life, I had to accept his guidance. Even if Justin managed to avoid the bullies in Cody, there could be other situations where I’d have to protect him, and I had to be prepared. I found myself letting my thoughts wander so much that I didn’t notice him approaching, and very soon his arms were wrapped around me.
“You’ve grown since I last saw you, Emory,” he said as we embraced. “You are stronger and taller.”
“It’s from work; I hardly even have to lift weights anymore,” I told him. Then I noticed the tall, dark bottle on the kitchen counter. “You brought wine?”
“Indeed, I’d hoped that you would celebrate with me. A baby girl was born to me last night.”
“A…” I looked up into his face; he did look more tired than usual. “Oh… It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
He nodded and went to the kitchen to pour two glasses of wine. “Yes… after what your father did, I decided to slow down quite a lot. I have to be able to check in on my children and ensure their wellness.”
I looked down at the glass he offered me and sighed.
“Please, Emory. Let me tell you about her, and you may tell me about your beloved.”
I accepted the glass from him, and then he slid his phone over to me with a picture album pulled up. Grandfather rarely used technology, but when he was here, he couldn’t avoid it; he needed to be able to fit in, and he couldn’t let one of his eccentricities be that he wouldn’t use electronics. In his words, being eternal came with the need to also be adaptable. I took my time swiping through the images of the newborn and her mother.
“Where do they live?” I asked.
“Quebec,” he told me. “In the city of Saguenay. Her name is Lirabelle.”
“She’s a pretty baby,” I said as I passed the phone back to him.
He set it aside and grasped my hand. “Tell me what is on your mind, Emory. I can tell that there is a lot.”
I turned around and walked over to my bed, then set the wine glass on the night stand while I sat on the edge and started removing my boots. “It’s you, I sighed. Everything about you. I can hardly decide whether to say that I never want to see you again, or just take the plunge and fully accept your world.”
Grandfather took a seat in my armchair and sipped his wine. Though it seemed that he hadn’t slept much the night before, he appeared young and noble and virile. He had all the features a woman could want in her lover’s face, and it was no wonder it was so easy for him to keep his bloodline growing.
When he was in his own home, his hair was long– impossibly long, according to my memory– and shone like silver, but here, it was the color of dark chocolate and usually did not go much lower than his shoulders; I think it depended on the sort of woman he was hoping to attract. His deep crimson eyes sometimes looked more hazel when he was here, though my mother and I had always known them to be steel gray, like my father’s.
And my own, I reminded myself. I hated having so many of my father’s features, and I didn’t care that he got them from his own father; I didn’t like having any reminders of the monster.
“You are young still,” grandfather said, “and of all my living descendants, you have the most potential.”
I made myself comfortable on the bed and met his eyes. “You want me to be proud of that, but I don’t think I want the same things you do.”
He sipped his wine slowly. “Perhaps not in the narrowest of terms, Emory, but think of it more broadly: I want to make my bloodline strong and keep it safe, and you’ve found the love of your life.”
“You talk like you think he’s my soul-mate.”
“If you mean the term loosely,” he replied thoughtfully, “then yes. You disrupted your plans and came all the way here for him. You called upon the shadows and used your intimidation to protect him.”
I met his gaze evenly. “That’s just the problem. I…” I sighed and looked away. “Grandfather, what you told me years ago… If I over-extend my abilities, is it really possible for me to let monsters into the world? Or to collapse structures?”
Grandfather took a long drink from his glass, then got up to refill it. “Yes,” he said when he sat down. “If you were pushed hard enough, and if you pushed back even harder– and without any proper training– you could unleash such power. But your mind is stronger than your father’s was, and I don’t think you’d let yourself get to such a point.”
That was as much relief as I was going to get from him, I suppose.
“Unless, of course, the love of your life was threatened.”
I gasped, and he shared a look of understanding with me.
“But I know you won’t abandon him just to avoid what being a part of my bloodline has given you. Neither would you avoid me if it meant wrecking havoc on his life. You need him to be safe, but you also need to be with him.”
“And what about when you insist that I come to live with you?”
“I would never force you, Emory,” he replied, keeping his voice gentle and even. “I think it would suit you well, but if you choose to only live the mortal life laid out before you, I will not act against your will.”
“Grandfather… Since coming here…” I wiped my hand over my face and shook my head.
“Life has changed?” he finished for me. “As it so often does.”
“He told me he loves me,” I whispered.
“So the last barrier between you and the greatest possible love has been broken down,” he noted. “Are you going to turn away from him once he is back on his feet?”
“I don’t think there is such a thing as that without me in his life. But also… I can’t imagine a life without him. I haven’t even started college yet, and suddenly he went from being my best friend, who has a boyfriend, and who moved away, to being…” I fought for another word, but my head was spinning, and all I could choose was, “my soul mate.”
“You almost sound as though you don’t want to be in love.”
“Like this?” I gasped. “Drowning in thoughts of him and summoning shadows in a grocery store to scare off his bullies? I feel as though I’ll be consumed, one way or another.”
Grandfather nodded. “That is love,” he said. “I’ve fallen into it more times than I can count. I have more descendants than you can imagine, and only some of them still bear my name. You, my dearest grandson, have a powerful and singular love, and all the ability and willpower to harness it. You are the brightest of my stars, and I promise you that I would never ask you to extinguish that love.”
I stared at him for a moment before burying my face in my hands.
“You have from now until the end of your lives to decide whether to join me, Emory, and in all that time, I will never stop being there for you and your beloved.”
“You sound so sure of my being with him for the rest of my life,” I murmured.
He paused for a moment to think. “Tell me why you’re so hesitant to accept that idea.”
“Because I’m not so sure I can protect him and give him the life he deserves.”
“I am here to teach you so that he shall always be safe with you.”
I shook my head. “I know… and I’m grateful for that…”
“Then what else is troubling you?”
I let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t want what happened to my father to happen to me.”
That seemed to be when he realized why I was holding back so much. “Do you truly think that you could ever be like your father?”
I tried to meet his eyes, but mine were blurred by tears. I felt him come to my side more than saw or heard him. My grandfather wrapped me in his embrace, shrouding me from the world and all the pain therein. I breathed deeply of his scent; the scent that had held me as a baby, that had comforted me when my father hurt me and was taken away. There were so many memories, so many times when my grandfather had been there and kept the darkness from closing in on me.
Beneath the ancient wine and the rich leather was the scent of orchids. And then there were cloves and parchment, amber, vetiver, bergamot, smoke… and iron. Iron and copper, really. He was never without that scent, and I knew why; he needed it, could not be separated from it, no matter how strong his control was.
That is to say, my grandfather smelled of blood. So much so that if I scraped my knee or had a nosebleed, memories of him would float through my mind. It was the same if I was sweating while working with metal; the iron would trigger that connection. And when my father hurt me… It was so hard to separate the blood my father had shed when he was out of his mind from the blood my grandfather needed in order to live, in order to continue to be there for me– for all of his vast family, really.
“You could never hurt the ones you love,” he whispered as he rocked ever-so-slightly. “You could never stop loving someone to the point where you could hurt them. You’ve grown up to be the man I wanted your father to be. You are noble and strong, and you live with a sense of love and purpose. You are a treasure, Emory. I only wish I’d known sooner that your father was unwell.”
I still couldn’t talk. I must have been sobbing, completely overwhelmed by emotions from the past few weeks. All I could do was cling to him as Justin had clung to me, and breathe in my grandfather’s comforting scent. It occurred to me then that this might have been why I’d fallen so deeply into gothic culture; it had many of the same scents, it emulated the images and attitudes of my greatest comfort and the closest thing I’d ever personally had to a hero in my life.
“Do you remember that your mother let me choose your name?” he murmured as he held me. “I’m sure I’ve told you so many times before.”
I nodded weakly.
“It means strong and courageous,” he went on, “and you always have been. I tried so hard to cultivate that in your father… Emory, I’m so sorry he ever hurt you. I cannot tell you how many nights I’ve wished you were my son instead of his. You were the one good thing he ever brought into this world, and I see you working to pass your goodness on to others.”
We sad quietly for a while, me trying to calm down enough to talk, and him patiently holding me and rocking me.
“I won’t let anyone in my bloodline cause that kind of harm ever again; we are a brave and noble line, and your father was never worthy of bearing the Thorne name.”
“I believe you,” I replied, suddenly feeling very weak, “but right now, all I can think about is keeping Justin safe.”
“I will ensure that you can do exactly that,” my grandfather replied. “We can begin at sunset. For now, relax here.”
“Are– Where are you going?” I asked him when he stood up and formed another shadow portal.
“To check on my daughter,” he replied, “and make sure the nurses are keeping her mother fed and letting her sleep. I shall be back in time to teach you a good many things, Emory; that I promise you.”
That afternoon, it turned out that he was also interested in kissing me. Not that I minded; he put his heart into it, and I loved the affection. I only wished my mind wasn’t distracted by another worry.
“Don’t answer it,” he whispered when my phone rang. He was kissing down my neck, and I was finding it hard to decide whether to enjoy it and risk him leaving a mark, or making him stop before he took things further.
I let it ring out, but it only started ringing again a moment later. “Just let me see who it is,” I told him. having a hard time catching my breath. When I looked down at the screen of my phone, my veins turned to ice. “Little Moon…. I’m sorry… I have to answer this.”
Ever-so-gently, I laid him aside and kissed his forehead.
It rang out again, and then it went back to ringing. “He’s going to keep calling until I answer. I shouldn’t be long, Little Moon. Just rest here.” I hopped up and went to the far side of my car before hitting the answer button.
“Hello?” I said, hoping my voice didn’t sound nervous.
“You’re not in Portland anymore,” the voice on the other end of the line said. It was smooth and low, rich with nobility and pride. He sounded almost fascinated by the statement he’d made.
“Yeah…” I said. I opened the back door and sat on the edge of the seat.
“You know how I knew that, don’t you?”
I nodded, then remembered he couldn’t see me. “I know, Grandfather,” I replied. “I overdid it last night.”
“That’s only part of it,” he agreed, “but it’s also the most concerning part.”
“I did it for my best friend.”
“Oh, I know, Emory,” he said. Some might have said he had an arrogant tone, but I don’t think that’s exactly what it was. With his abilities, he really did know, and he had no false pride. “It’s the boy you’ve always treasured, isn’t it?”
“If you had a singular partner, maybe you’d understa–”
“That is beside the point,” he said with an air of finality. “I am not questioning the fact that you have feelings for him. Truthfully, it’s about time you let yourself feel passion. That is also why you must learn to control yourself properly.”
I sighed heavily. “Not right now, Grandfather. I have to focus on Justin.”
“Yes… you are clearly quite focused on him, Emory. So much so that you nearly revealed things that cannot be explained to… humans.”
That wasn’t exactly what he meant. I was human– at least in most senses of the word– but I knew things that most of the populace didn’t. They wouldn’t believe me if I tried explaining it, and if they did, they would either be panicking or flocking to us, wanting to join in. I wasn’t interested in that; I didn’t even want to deal with what I knew and could do.
“They were going to hurt him.”
“I understand,” he replied. “That is why all that I ask is that you let me teach you more.”
“He needs me, Grandfather. I can’t leave right now.”
“Listen carefully, Emory,” he said, his words weighing heavy. “You need not leave his side. I can come to you. When will you be home tonight?”
“I can’t tonight. He’s sleeping over again.”
“Emory,” he sighed, “the fact that you’re willing to argue with me about him makes me think that this will be the one to stay with. If that’s true, he’ll learn about me eventually.”
“I… It’s just too soon for him, Grandfather. He can’t handle more stress right now.”
“He doesn’t live with you. Tell me another night when I can come by.”
“He– wait, how did you know–” Then I remembered the strange dream I’d had before, the one in which the shadows seemed to be watching me. “Did you–“
“Emory,” he said, more insistent this time. “Tell me when I may come to your home, or I shall come tonight.”
“Grandfather,” I croaked out, “please…”
“You know better than to argue with me, Emory. You love him, and I know you’ll do anything to protect him, but I will not risk letting you lose control.”
“I won’t,” I insisted.
“Then you may prove that to me when I visit tonight.”
“No, Grandfather,” I replied. Then, before he could raise his voice, I added, “Tuesday night. I’ll make sure I’m alone then.”
There was a pause, and then he spoke again. “Very well, Emory. I think I will bring you a gift as well.”
“I don’t wa–”
“Enough with this cold tone, Emory. We need to make peace with one another. I shall see you soon; until then, be well.”
He hung up before I could say anything else; he always did have to be the one in control of the situation. I sighed and put my phone on the back seat, then wiped my hands over my face. Why did he have to be my father’s father? Maybe I should have seen the irony– or was it humor? Never mind the semantics– of having him in my family and enjoying the gothic aesthetic. Shouldn’t I have been loving this?
I decided to go back to Justin’s side before he got too worried; he did have a way of making me feel better.
“Who was that, anyway? Your dad? Are you keeping in touch with him?”
“My grandfather,” I told him as I sat down and let him slide onto my lap.
Justin knew that I had one particular grandparent whom I referred to as ‘grandfather,’ and that it was my father’s father; I had other terms for my mother’s father and my adoptive parents’ fathers. He knew that I was most formal with him, but not the exact reasons why, nor… well, things I would have been glad to not have to deal with myself.
“Oh. I hope he’s doing okay.” Justin nuzzled against my chest and made himself comfortable.
“He is,” I murmured. “Which means I can go back to focusing on you.”
It wasn’t long before Justin decided that he wanted more kisses. He was glad I’d left my phone in the car this time, so that we could kiss uninterrupted. He turned around to straddle my lap, wrapping his legs around my waist as his hands massaged my arms and shoulders. After a while, he pushed me onto my back and undid the top few buttons of my shirt to gain access to my collarbone. I could hardly resist him; my eyes closed, my body relaxed beneath him, and I let him feast on me for a while.
“Blackthorne,” he whispered.
His tongue licked along my collarbone. “You taste good.”
I gasped and grabbed his hips. “Little Moon,” I murmured. My eyes opened just a sliver, and it seemed as though the shade of the tree was much darker.
He licked the other one. “Very good.”
When his fingertips started to slip under my shirt, I grabbed his wrists.
“What’s wrong?” he whispered. “I can tell you’re excited.”
Heat filled my cheeks. “Yeah,” I gasped. “I know. I just… I need to slow down.”
Justin’s lips pursed, and I knew he was disappointed. After a moment of thought, he nodded. “Yeah… like you said last night. It’s okay.”
I smiled up at him. “Thank you.”
My fingers caressed his cheek, and he nuzzled into my palm. Justin moved to lie alongside me. His eyes closed contentedly as his body started to relax; he’d been eager and excited, too. No matter how badly he needed affection or desired pleasure, I had to be careful. There were reasons I hadn’t slept with many people. Justin thought he knew them, but the truth was a little deeper than what he believed.
“I like being out here with you,” Justin whispered after a while of relaxing. “I feel so safe with you.”
He was safe from the bullies, safe from the human world, yes– but could I keep him safe from what was beyond that? This was why I’d been so happy to see him with Killian: he kept Justin safe in mind and body, and was very affectionate with him. Killian was the light in his life, whereas I knew the shadows much more intimately. It was more than just goth culture; Justin might have been fascinated by it, but that would be like a moth drawn to a flame, and I didn’t want him to get hurt.
“Time seems to pass us by so fast…” Justin sighed. “It’s already past sunset.”
I turned my head and looked out across the hill and the land beyond. It was a little darker than before, but it didn’t seem entirely accurate I decided not to tell Justin, though.
“In that case, are you about ready for dinner?” I asked him.
“Are you going to tell me what you have planned?”
“Hmm… Well, I’d like to get you your favorite.”
He sat up, grinning. “Spaghetti and meatballs? Then we can we go back to your place and watch vampire movies?”
Another of his favorites. It was only too bad that admiring them was so easy when he thought somewhere deep down that they weren’t real.
“Whatever makes you happy, Little Moon,” I replied. I could tread this line a little longer, walking along the edge of darkness without pulling Justin into it; then my grandfather would guide me through the next stage.
“Mmmm… I hope they have garlic bread!” Justin hopped up, and I followed suit.
“I can’t imagine them not having any.” We shook out the blanket together, then folded it. “But you need more diverse nutrients, so there will be salad, too.”
Justin made a face, but he didn’t argue the point. There were a few things he refused to eat, but others that he would compromise with me on, and getting him to put down at least a basic salad was part of that.
Once we were in the car and on our way back into town, Justin busied himself with playing music for us. Had he been paying attention, he might have noticed that it wasn’t as late as he’d first thought; the darkness he’d perceived earlier wasn’t evening setting in, and it wasn’t clouds either. The sky was clear and bright, just like I wanted him to feel inside. I had to get my mind off the shadows and the things that lurked in them; that wasn’t going to be easy.
I pulled up to the Italian restaurant David had recommended and squeezed Justin’s hand before sliding out of the car. He was busy putting my phone on silent when I walked around to open the passenger-side door.
“I hope you’re hungry,” I told him as we walked inside. “David says the pasta here is made from scratch.”
Justin looked thrilled. He’d helped Mrs. Riordan make home-made noodles before, so he knew how much work it was, and how wonderful it tasted compared to the dried spaghetti and canned sauce his own mother sometimes got in her food box. He didn’t ever complain about the food box, though. I gave him a couple jars of dried herbs — and sometimes Killian brought some fresh from his mother’s garden– and even that was enough to make him happy. Spaghetti was his favorite thing to make that actually involved a stove, and he’d gotten good at it over the years. He’d eat just about any variety of tomato sauce, so when he didn’t have any on hand, Killian and I would give him something with meat or extra vegetables just to make sure he got the nutrition.
Dinner was wonderful. Justin tried just picking at his salad at first, but the idea of extra meatballs with his spaghetti was all the encouragement he needed. After we’d eaten, he offered to help pay using the bit he had left from working and the cash his mother had given him, but I insisted that it was my treat, and that he should save what he had for something for himself. I took him back to my place with a big smile and a full belly, and once we were settled in, I put on “Underworld” and let him snuggle me in the recliner.
My dreams that night were strange. At least, one of them was, as I couldn’t remember much about the others. I was meditating in a crypt when Killian found me. He seemed upset, but instead of trying to comfort him, my first reaction was anger. He was demanding to know where Justin was, but I wouldn’t tell him; I was too angry at him for not making sure Justin would be able to contact him after he moved.
“He needed you,” I hissed, trying not to raise my voice too much, “and you didn’t even give him closure.”
“Why are you putting all of this on my shoulders?” Killian asked me in the dream. “He’s been your friend longer than I’ve even lived in this country.”
“Because I–” No, I couldn’t tell him my secret. “You can do things for him that I can’t.”
“What do you mean, aside from letting him take my virginity?”
“You– Killian, he’s safer with you than he would be with me.”
“Howso? You’re goth, but you’re not dangerous.”
“There are things you don’t know,” I grumbled.
“Then tell us.”
“I can’t. You wouldn’t believe me, anyway. Just… just take him with you. Take him and keep him happy.”
Killian gazed past me, further into the crypt. “Why bring him down here in the first place? It’s pretty morbid.”
“I can’t escape it,” I told him. “It’s… It’s part of who I am.”
“Who,” Killian asked slowly, as though his mind raced to try and guess at what I meant, “or what?”
A bat screeched and flew out of a corner of the chamber, then through the passage leading deeper inside. I watched it go before looking back to Killian. Outside, thunder was crashing and rumbling.
“I can bring him to you if you promise to take care of him,” I said, hearing the desperation in my own voice. “Treasure him like I do, but get him out of this darkness.”
Killian’s expression turned to one of sadness. “I want children, Blackthorne. Light and life. Justin…” He shook his head. “You’re so much better at helping him get through life that he isn’t even scared of the shadows.”
I understood it a little more then: Justin was like a child in the way he needed tender care and guidance. Life had always been a struggle for him; his father rarely came to see him, and his mother was more often at work or with friends than she was with him. Justin couldn’t be expected to care for a baby, or to teach a toddler, or to help a kid after school. He… he needed someone devoted to him.
“He needs you,” Killian said.
It was like he’d been reading my mind. It was just a dream, after all, and this Killian was a construct of my mind.
“I’m not angry with you,” Killian added. “I will always remember the time I spent with Justin as fond memories. I’m sure he feels the same way about me. But you’ve always been the perfect one for him.”
I shook my head. “You wouldn’t say that if you knew about my family.”
“The mother who loved you with all her heart? The people who adopted you? They’re wonderful, Blackthorne.”
‘No,’ I thought, but couldn’t bring myself to say. ‘My grandfather.’
I woke from that dream to find my pillow wet. It was utterly black in the room. I sat up and realized that I couldn’t even see the light of the clock. It was raining outside. There was a flash of lightning, then thunder so loud and immediate that I thought the world was breaking apart. How had a storm like this come in so quickly?
“Do not worry.”
I could hardly keep from gasping; that wasn’t Justin’s voice. It was soft and low, and very rich. I tried reaching for my phone, which would have had plenty of battery power, but it was too far and I couldn’t risk waking Justin.
“It’s just after midnight,” the voice said. “Your city lost power from the storm. I only came to make sure you were safe.”
“But you said…” I whispered.
“Ssssshhh…. Careful, Emory, or you’ll wake him.”
My body trembled as I listened. I tried to get hold of myself to calm my breathing, but I could see nothing but the occasional clash of silver, and my head felt like it was in a fog.
“I know he is as precious to you as you are to me.”
“It’s all right, Emory,” the voice reassured me. It was like a velvety caress, and somehow the words were heavy with truth. “I am always watching over you. This storm will pass, and the power will be restored before dawn. You enjoy the sound of the rain, do you not? Let it relax you, and go back to sleep.”
“Sssshhh,” he said again. “We shall speak face-to-face in a few days. Just rest for now.”
And I did. The rest of that night– or morning– I slept so well that I woke to the daylight feeling more rested than I had in a long time.
The morning came all too soon. I realized that I hadn’t paid any attention to what time it had been when the movie had ended, so there was no way for me to accurately determine how much sleep I’d gotten. My dreams had been… well, they’d been varied. One had been about Justin and me, which had been blissful and loving. Another had been about my father, and it seemed as though all of my scars and other injuries were fresh, but I was too terrified to get away from him. The other felt much more real, almost lucid; it took place there in the guest house, with Justin asleep beside me; the only difference was that the shadows had form and substance, and they moved around the room and watched me. That one left me with a cold, eerie sensation.
It was still very early, though, as the morning light was faint. I rolled over, taking Justin with me, and went back to sleep.
The next time I woke up, it was because my phone was ringing. I rolled over to pick it up, then pressed the green button. “Hello?” I croaked out groggily. I hadn’t meant to sound quite so out of it, but it was the first time I’d spoken that morning, so I couldn’t really expect to sound smooth.
“Oh, Emory, I hope I didn’t wake you up.” It was my new boss; he knew I went by the nickname Blackthorne, but I wasn’t expecting him to use it. Besides, he felt that it should be reserved for my closest friends, even though as a boss he was pretty friendly.
I peaked at the time on the phone; it was almost ten in the morning. “Don’t worry about it,” I assured him, “this is a completely reasonable time to call.”
“Okay, thanks Emory,” he replied. “I knew you were cool. Anyway, I thought I might offer you some overtime. It’s not mandatory or anything, you’ll get time and a half for it, and it’s not like I’m going to take it out of your hours next week. Anyway, more to the point, I thought maybe we could do some deep cleaning and get the shop more organized.”
I could feel Justin starting to move next to me. He mumbled something and laid a hand on my arm.
“I’d be more than happy to help you if I didn’t have my friend over,” I told him.
I’d told my boss a little bit about Justin, mainly the that whole reason I was in town at all was because I was helping a friend who was going through a hard time.
“Is that work?” Justin mumbled. “I can stay here and watch movies if you have to go.”
“I get it, I get it,” my boss sighed. “Well, if you really can’t, that’s fine, we can get started on the project on Monday. But let me try and see if I can sweeten the deal for you: If your friend wants to come and help clean, I can pay him too. I mean, it wouldn’t be as much as I pay you, but it’d be something.”
I looked down at Justin. He rubbed his eyes a little. “Did he say I can earn money too? Really? Just for cleaning?”
Justin had never had a job before– well, not one where he was on the payroll. He would help out here and there around town and got some pocket change from that, but never an official paycheck. I think my boss was offering to pay him cash, too. Justin was always willing to earn money, bit it wasn’t easy for him to try applying for jobs, especially with him being so introverted. He liked earning money rather than getting it from his mother, as long as it didn’t involve babysitting. Actually, I think he had babysat a couple times, but Killian was there with him, and it was Killian’s youngest siblings; his mom had paid them both.
“You’d really want to?” I asked him. I figured he would, but after the rough time he’d been having lately, it seemed best to make sure. He grinned up at me and nodded.
“Yeah, it’s way better than school work.”
“All right,” I said back into the phone. “We can be there. How soon do you need us? Do we have time for showers?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ll have coffee and donuts for you both when you get here.”
“That sounds really good, actually. Okay, we’ll go get ready. See you in a little while.”
Once I hung up the phone, I rolled back over to hug Justin. “Well, I was going to just lie here all day with you in my arms, but it looks like we get to be productive instead.”
Justin was grinning from ear to ear. He kissed my forehead. “And we get money for it– and donuts!”
I was relieved that he was actually interested in eating. “Tell you what, you eat something with eggs and meat in it, and then you can have some donuts.” I sat up and started sliding out of bed.
“Ooooh, can it be the sandwich with a croissant instead of a bun?”
“Sure, if that’s what you like. But first, I need a shower.”
I headed into the bathroom and got the water going. It took a couple minutes to heat up, and then I was in, thankful for the water pressure as the water poured over me. I was shampooing my hair when I noticed a shadow beside me. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was worried about what might be just past the shower curtain. Normally I wouldn’t be bothered at all, but last night had been so unusual…
When the curtain drew aside, I just about gasped; I think that startle Justin even more than my own nervousness. He blinked, but then brushed it aside.
“Can… can I join you?” he asked in a timid voice. “We could save water… and time.”
I gave him a tender smile; how could I say no to him, especially when he’d already undressed? I invited him in and let him stand in the water. It was a good opportunity for me to check him over, actually; I hadn’t been able to think up any other reason to get his shirt off and see for myself what had been done to him.
“Wow…” I breathed when I saw the large swath of discolored skin on his back; I didn’t dare touch it, and I worried that I’d touched it before, not knowing about the bruises. “How did–”
“That was when they shoved me against the sink,” he told me. “It’s okay, it hardly even hurts anymore.”
“Hardly hurts?” I asked. “This shouldn’t have been done to you in the first place.”
“I know, Blackthorne, believe me, I know.” He turned around and put his hand on my shoulders. “but you’re here now, and those bullies are scared of you.”
He ran his hands over my arms. “You’re way bigger and stronger than they are.”
I could hardly respond to his insistence that my height and muscles were the only reasons they’d run away last night. I was only nineteen– not that much older than them– and they clearly didn’t care what most adults had to say. Well, as long as Justin felt safe around me, I didn’t have to tell him what else I had done to cause them to make such a hasty exit.
“Woah! When did you get a tattoo?!”
Justin was eyeing my chest, specifically the coat of arms over my heart.
“Oh… Just a few months ago,” I told him.
“Is it fully healed? Can I touch it?” I nodded, and his fingers traced the dark gray lines of the shield. “I didn’t know you planned on getting a tattoo…”
That was because I hadn’t exactly planned on it. But there was no way I could explain the story behind that. Neither could it say that it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I decided to simply not address it all, and to treat it as rhetorical.
“Do you like it?” I asked as I watched him examine it. His finger traced the red bar that ran across the middle of the shield. It had two gray lions above it, and two below. He wouldn’t have known it, but parts of the shield had been done in a special ink would shimmer like silver in candlelight. There were banners of red and gray around the shield, and above it, where most other iterations of the Thorne coat of arms had a helmet and another lion, were a silver crown and a stylized bat. There were also thorny vines woven among the banners, with crimson roses in various stages of bloom.
He nodded. “It’s some kind of crest, right?”
“It’s the Thorne coat of arms.”
“It’s… Heh, it actually suits you.”
“You think so?” I replied with a smirk. “Maybe I should look up yours.”
Justin pursed his lips. “Oh– um, well… I don’t know if I could sit through even a basic, tiny tattoo, let alone something like this.”
“That’s okay,” I said with a laugh. I was just teasing anyway. “Now, let’s get you soaped up so we can get some food in your belly.”
It pained me to see how badly Justin needed to be cared for. As I rubbed the soap over his body, I could see how thin he’d become since leaving Portland; I hadn’t seen him so skeletal for years, and I wondered how Killian would have reacted to seeing all of his hard work undone, and knowing it was because of the hell this move had put him through. I tried not to let him see my worry, though, and just focused and helping him recover.
Eventually, Justin took the soap from me and got to work on scrubbing my body. “You’re too slow,” he teased. “I want to get donuts and money!”
He didn’t waste any time rinsing off, and I really didn’t mind that; it was good to see him actually have some energy. I turned off the water and reached past him to grab a towel to wrap around his narrow frame. I grabbed another to ruffle his hair, then wrapped my own in it. My hair was a lot longer than Justin’s; it came down to my hips, and it was perfectly straight. Justin was one of the few people who knew my natural hair color, since I kept it dyed black and touched up the roots as they grew out. Most people were so used to it being black that they didn’t even know I dyed it.
Justin’s hair was naturally black, which he got from his dad. He liked not having to dye it all the time, and her considered it to be the only great thing his father had ever given him. He thought about growing it out sometimes, but he was disappointed with the messy waves he got, and sometimes trimmed it to just below his ears. He didn’t really do much with it, which he was fine, since he and his mom couldn’t afford to always have the right styling products on hand. There were times when he wouldn’t have had shampoo if it weren’t for Killian giving him some.
I pulled on my cotton robe and sat on the edge of the bed to comb out my hair. Justin, meanwhile, towel dried his hair, combed it, and then search his backpack for his clothes.
“Pick something you don’t mind getting dusty,” I told him.
He nodded. “Ummm…. Blackthorne? Those scratches on your back look pretty red. Do they sting? I mean, they look like they will if you start sweating.”
“You think I’ll be working that hard today?” I raised an ever-so-suggestive eyebrow at him.
“You always work hard,” he said as he pulled up his underpants and then his worn-out black jeans. “are these pants okay? I don’t want your boss to be mad at me.”
“Are you okay with them getting dusty?” I asked, pretending that I didn’t notice how loose they were on him. Thankfully he also had a belt. He nodded. “They’re fine. He’d probably be more disappointed if you wore nice pants to a cleaning day.”
“Okay, but if I’m getting dirty, won’t you get dirty, too? And those scratches…”
“Little moon, are you claiming to have the claws of a tiger now?”
His cheeks flushed. “Oh– Umm…. maybe… maybe a jaguar.”
“Also a fierce feline. Well, if you are so concerned for my well-being, I’ll let you put some ointment on my wounds.” I was going to wear a cotton undershirt anyhow, since it would make the collared shirt I’d be wearing that day more comfortable, so I didn’t have to worry about ointment getting on my nice clothes.
Normally I’d pick out shirt made of silk or soft cotton; my skin was sensitive, and I couldn’t put up with stiff or scratchy fabric for long. The flip-side to that was that if I had to do work that would damage nicer fabrics, I could wear something simpler, but I definitely needed to put something soft under it. I finished combing my hair and pulled it back into a sleek ponytail, then headed into the bathroom to get the first-aid kit.
“You’re going to have to take off that robe, you know.” Justin pointed out.
He shook his head when I flashed him a playful grin. “We can mess around later.” Then he opened my dresser and fished around for a pair of boxers to throw at me. “Put that on so we can finish up and get food.”
Thank goodness he had an appetite; that was enough to keep me motivated. I pulled my hair aside and let him smear antibiotic ointment over the scratches he’d made the night before.
“I hope it doesn’t sting too much,” he said.
“It’s not bad at all, especially with you tending to me,” I assured him.
“I was… Umm…”
“What’s on your mind, Little Moon?”
He whimpered a little before saying, “I just didn’t mean to add to the scars you already have.” His fingers traced over a few of the older ones, and I turned around to take his hands.
“Little Moon, it’s not the scars that are a problem, but the circumstances in which I received them.”
His rich brown eyes stared up into mine. His lips moved, but he couldn’t get any words out.
I leaned in close to him. “Shall I let you kiss me like you did last night, and show you just how much I liked it?”
His cheeks turned bright red. “I… I, umm…. well…” He paused for a moment, then whispered, “We should go to your work.”
I chuckled and kissed his forehead. “I’m surprised that you can still focus on that.” I got up and pulled a form-fitting undershirt from one of the drawers. Justin watched me pull it on; I think he was admiring my muscles through it.
We were both fully dressed and heading out the door within a few minutes. I locked up, and we hopped into the car and headed down the road to get him some breakfast. Justin and I got matching croissant sandwiches with ham, but he also got a hash brown and a root beer. I would have gotten a coffee there, but the boss had already promised us (well, me, as Justin didn’t drink regular coffee) some, and I didn’t want to show up with one of my own.
Once I parked in front of the computer shop, the boss came out to let us in. The shop was only open for browsing Monday through Friday. The boss was there on Saturdays, but the shop was only accessible by appointment or calling ahead; that was his time for getting things done without customers interrupting him.
“Hey, thanks for coming in!” the boss said. He ushered us inside and locked the door after us.
“We’re glad to help,” I told him. I put an arm around Justin’s shoulders. “This is the friend I’ve been telling you about, Justin.”
“Great to meet you, Justin,” the boss said, offering his hand. “You can call me David, or just Dave is fine, too. Are you ready to get this place cleaned up?”
Justin nodded, and a short conversation later, David had me clock in, and I got my coffee. Justin was looking around as he sipped his root beer, taking in the tall shelves lined with products.
“It’ll just be a half shift today,” David noted. “I know the whole entire store won’t get clean, but we’ll be able to get a pretty significant head start. Here, have a doughnut.”
He held the doughnut box open, and Justin grinned as he took one with chocolate icing and sprinkles. Justin had already finished his croissant sandwich in the car, but I needed a moment to finish mine. David went into the back room to grab some supplies while we ate; he came back with gloves, sprays, microfiber towels, and plenty more. I pulled a surgical-style mask out of one of the packets and helped Justin put it on.
“We can’t have you breathing in all that dust, can we?” I told him.
We found the short stepladder, some gloves, an apron, and some other things that would be handy for cleaning, and before too long Justin was busy clearing off the top shelves. I headed to the back room to help clean and sort the electronics and computer parts.
The morning sped by. We managed to get a lot done, clearing off shelves, wiping away dust, and then reorganizing containers and products. David brought in a tray of sandwiches and chips for lunch; at first, Justin tried to say that he was full from breakfast, but I saw him eyeing the sandwiches. When the boss left to use the bathroom, I pulled Justin into my arms and rubbed his back.
“What’s making you hold back from eating?” I whispered as I leaned my forehead on his.
“I… ummm… Well, I didn’t realize he was going to buy so much food even though he’s paying us.”
“It’s okay,” I assured him, brushing several locks of hair out of his face. “This is how it goes when your boss is nice and people get along. You don’t have to feel guilty.”
He nodded, shaky though it was, and sat back down. Getting him back into eating properly was probably stressful on his body. He’d gotten used to hardly eating anything, and now that I was drawing him out of his sorrows and wanting him to have more energy for spending time with me, he had to change all over again. I gave him a paper plate with one of the small sub sandwiches and some Sun Chips and Doritos, then sat next to him with a plate of my own, which I’d made just like his. When the boss came back, we were already chatting in between bites, and Justin had finished his sandwich.
“Here you go, boys,” David said as he set some ice-cold water bottles on the table. He also placed a fresh bottle of root beer in front of Justin. “Don’t be shy, have a couple more. You’ve been working hard! “He grabbed a salami sandwich as well as a ham and turkey and added them to Justin’s plate.
Justin gave him a shy smile, eyeing his plate as he opened his soda.
“Let’s see if we can finish these off before we go back to work.” David sat down and filled up his plate. “We can finish what we’re working on and get cleaned up so it looks presentable for the customers on Monday.”
Justin ended up clearing his plate down to the last crumb. David tried offering him more, but by then he really was full. I didn’t want to let him overeat, because then he’d develop a stomachache and then go back to not wanting to eat at all. He was quick to start cleaning up from lunch, and would have headed straight back out to the dusty shelves if David and I hadn’t insisted that he sit down and rest. I hadn’t told my boss about his issues with food, but his laid-back approach did serve to help Justin relax.
When we did go back to cleaning, I reminded Justin to take it easy; we didn’t expect the whole store to get cleaned up that day, so him rushing to get more done would only serve to exhaust him. I wanted to visit some of the nearby shops with him, and that wouldn’t be any fun if he was exhausted. A couple hours later, we finished the shift by running the vacuum and the broom. I eventually had to take the broom from him, because he kept trying to sweep under shelves in the back room.
“Save some dirt for next week,” David said with a laugh.
Justin blinked. “Next week?”
“Of course! If you two aren’t doing anything else next Saturday, you can come in and help out again. Or two weeks from now, if you’d rather rest.”
“I want to earn more money, for sure!”
“That’s the spirit, young man! Just don’t overwork yourself. Say, if you’re that interested in working, I think the gal down at the clothing shop was looking for help. I’ll put in a good word for you.”
Justin’s eyes sparkled like stars. “Thank you so much!”
“Of course. Now then, time to pay you. Emory’s hours have been added to his time card, but you…” David punched a few things into the computer connected to the register. The drawer popped open, and he pulled out a few bills. “This is for today. I’d give you more if I could, but the invitation is still open for next week, donuts and all.”
Justin accepted the bills, glanced over them, and then stared up at David in wonder.
“You okay, young man?”
I looked over Justin’s shoulder and smiled. “I think he’s too happy for words,” I explained. “I don’t think he’s ever gotten that much for just sweeping and dusting.”
David looked relieved. “Is that so? Well, I’m glad I could make your day then.” He patted Justin’s shoulder. “Now go on out and enjoy yourselves.”
“Th… thank you again,” Justin said. “I had no idea… I mean, I really appreciate it. I can come and help any weekend you need me!”
Once we said our good-byes to David, Justin and I headed down the street and glanced through the windows of some of the shops. Most of them didn’t interest him, and a couple were restaurants that he was still too full to try out. He stopped at one place on the corner, and a large grin crossed his face.
“Blackthorne, it’s a barber shop!”
And he was right; it was an old-fashioned shop, charming in its own way.
“I… I haven’t had my hair cut by… by anyone besides my mom or Killian’s mom in years.”
I nodded; that was completely believable, knowing how hard it was for his mother to earn money.
“My dad took me to Great Clips when I started middle school: I think he only agreed to it because he had a coupon.”
“I think I remember that,” I replied. “That was the time you tipped the stylist with the last few dollars you had, right?”
Justin nodded. “It’s not like my dad was going to. Anyway, I can buy my own haircut now! Well… You don’t think it’d be more than fifty dollars do you?”
“Not even close,” I assured him.
We entered the barber shop, and Justin was taken back right away. They started out with a washing, partly because Justin wanted to get the dust out from all the cleaning he’d done, and partly because he was fascinated by the special sinks and sprayers. He sat as still as a statue as the barber combed his hair and started trimming it. He got off all the split ends, evened out the length, and also did a bit of feathering to give his hair some style.
When the barber finished and Justin looked in the mirror, he was stunned. So was I, really; he’d always been cute, but with his hair done professionally… well, I could hardly put words to how handsome it made him. He was thrilled with the result, and when the barber didn’t even charge him half the money he’d just earned, he tipped him generously and promised to come back when he needed another haircut.
“Wow,” Justin said as we walked out together. He was absolutely beaming. “That was so awesome!”
“You look great,” I told him. I put my arm around his shoulders as we rounded the corner to explore more of the city.
“Oh– I just thought of something! Next time, I can take my mom to get her hair done!”
“That’s really sweet of you.”
He grinned at me. “I bet she’d really like it.”
“She must feel as lucky as I do to have you.”
He blushed and looked down.
We went on talking as we walked. Justin feathered his fingers through his hair now and again, still reveling in the fresh, clean feel of it. Eventually, we found a clothing store that looked interesting to him, and headed inside.
The person managing the shop was a young woman, several years older than us at most. Her sandy-blonde hair had a few different-colored streaks in it, and was tied into a messy ponytail. She had several piercings, a couple tattoos on her forearms, and a fox-like smile. Metallica was playing overhead, and she was keeping with the rhythm as she tidied the store.
“Hi, guys!” she called as we entered. She looked us over. “Oooh, nice Docs.”
“Thanks,” I replied, hoping my boots weren’t too dusty from work.
“Looking for anything in particular, or just want to browse?” she asked.
“I think browsing for now,” I told her. I was going to see if Justin had anything to add, but he was already heading over to one of the racks to look through the t-shirts.
“He’s like a kid in a candy shop,” she laughed.
“They have a Type O Negative shirt!” Justin announced from the far side of a rack.
“A Type O fan, huh? Great taste,” she said. “He has to be the most adorable fan I’ve ever met.”
I gazed over in his direction and nodded. “He’s amazing.”
Then she grinned wider, as though realizing something. “Oh, you two are–” She paused as though uncertain whether she should continue with that train of thought. I gave her a nod of confirmation. “That’s so sweet!”
She hurried over to me and offered her hand. “I’m so glad you two came in! My name’s Cadence; anything you want help with in my shop, just ask.”
Before I could shake her hand, Justin appeared at my side. “Blackthorne, it’s in your size!” He held up a black shirt with green and orange lettering, and the cover for the October Rust album in the middle.
“Blackthorn, huh? Awesome name,” Cadence told me with a grin. “It suits you.”
“You think so?” I shared a smile with Justin and took the shirt from him. “My favorite album; I’ll have to try it on. Now go find something for yourself, Little Moon.”
Once he was exploring another aisle, I shook the shop-keeper’s hand. “Nice to meet you. It looks like you already have a fan.”
“Well, I’d say he’s really made my day. How have I not seem you two around before?”
“We’re not from here. Justin moved here with his mother a couple months ago, and I came to visit him more recently.”
“Well, I’m glad you found my store! Your pet name for him is adorable, by the way.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “I’m just glad to see him happy. Moving was pretty hard on him.”
“I get that.”
After a little more conversation, I went to the fitting room. When I came out, Justin showed me the pants and shirts he wanted to try on. He ended up settling on a pair of black pants that was a couple sizes smaller than what he’d worn when he left Portland. As much as I was hoping he’d fill out again, he deserved to feel good about wearing something that fit him properly. He also picked a button-down red and black shirt with bats embroidered across the back and on the breast pockets. Cadence’s shop had both new and used clothes, and Justin had honed in on finding the best bargains in the styles he liked.
I wanted him to find a couple more pants, but he was already talking about not over-spending, so I reminded myself that he could come back another week. He did choose a pewter ring from the jewelry case, though; it had the band’s O-Negative symbol going around it. Cadence rang us up– Justin insisted on paying for his own items, and tried paying for my shirt, but I didn’t let him– and we were getting ready to leave when Justin asked her one more question.
“Umm… Miss Cadence?”
“You can ask me whatever if your drop the ‘miss.’”
He flushed and nodded. “I… well, I was wondering if you could use a helper in the store… I don’t know if you’re hiring, but this place is really cool, and–“
“You want a job?” She looked surprised– it was in a good way, but I don’t think Justin realized that right away. “Yeah, I could definitely used some help from like-minded guys like you. Here…”
Cadence fished out two job applications from a drawer under the register and held them out for us.
“Just him,” I told her. “I have a job at the computer store.”
“Ohhhh, a goth and a techie? I like it!” She put one of the applications away and had Justin take the other. “I look forward to getting this back from you.”
Justin gave her a shy nod, then asked if he could change so he could wear his new clothes out of the store. He came out looking fantastic in his new ensemble, and I had to struggle to re-focus my wandering thoughts. We thanked Cadence and promised not to be strangers, and from there we decided to head back to my car and go for a drive.
I let Justin use my phone to call his mother and tell her about his day. He was thrilled about having earned money and buying his own things, and also sent her pictures of his haircut. Ms. Anderson asked if we’d be there for dinner, but I explained that I wanted to take Justin out for dinner, but that we would be there the next day. Once he was off the phone, he grinned at me and asked where we were having dinner.
“That’s a surprise,” I told him.
“A surprise as in you haven’t decided yet either?”
I laughed. “I’m not telling.”
“Okay, fine,” he teased, “but can we go up to the hill and relax for a while?”
That was exactly what I’d planned, actually. Justin loved sitting under the tree with me. When it was just the two of us, without even the possibility of eavesdropping, he’d open up to me and shared what was truly on his mind. I could help him sort out his feelings and make decisions about his life; even though I thought he could use a professional counselor, I knew he’d never open up to one, so I had to be there for him.
The rest of that week was just as rough on Justin. His mother didn’t get any hopeful or useful information from the school. They seemed unmoved by the bullying, reiterating that he should have gone for help instead of turning to violence. They weren’t doing anything special to keep him safe; what good is telling him to run to the office if he’s trapped somewhere?
They accepted that Ms. Anderson wasn’t going to let him onto school grounds if he wasn’t safe, but wouldn’t budge on the graduation requirements. His transcripts had transferred from his high school in Portland, which showed that he’d lost a couple credits from his freshman year– it had been a difficult time for him, so he hadn’t cared about failing a couple classes. If he didn’t finish the classes he was in now– or at least some of them– he wouldn’t have enough credits for graduation. There was no tutoring available, but if he could get the classwork done as it was sent home, that would be good enough.
“It’s like they want me to fail,” he groaned as he gestured to the pile of textbooks on his desk.
He turned his desk chair to face away from them and look to where I sat in his armchair. It was Friday evening. I’d been invited over for dinner again, then up to his room to talk and relax with our full bellies. Ms. Anderson had been arguing with the school and the district office all week, trying to get some better arrangements made for her son, but they wouldn’t budge, and she ended up coming home with stacks of work. The principal had told her that once Justin was done with that, she could bring it back and get the next couple weeks’ worth of work.
“You know I’ll help you with it,” I reminded him. “I can be here every day after work to help you.”
“It’s just dumb, though,” he replied. “They want me to do busy work in order to graduate? Even if I do all of this, and the crap they send home later, I’m not going to know anything more than I do now. I won’t remember what’s on these papers after I turn them in.”
“I can’t say you’re entirely wrong,” I told him. “But you’re so close to being done, maybe you can just get this work finished and graduate, then put all of this behind you.”
He shrugged. “Did you know that they want me to go and take the finals too? Mom says they made it sound like it was a big deal that they were going to allow me to take the tests in the office or something like that.”
I sighed and wiped my hands over my face. “Look, Little Moon, I hate to suggest stuff like this, but you’ve got to do what’s going to cause you the least amount of harm, and this is stressing you out way too much. How much of this work do you have to actually get done so that they’ll let you graduate?”
He shrugged. “I wish it was zero.”
“Yeah, I agree, me too. But it’s not, so we’re going to have to approach this differently. Look at it this way: what would happen if you were to get all of these papers done and turned in, but didn’t get a perfect score on every single one of them? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. The point is, if you do the work, they can’t expect you to do it perfectly. I mean, I’m sure there’s plenty of people graduating who haven’t done it perfectly. When it’s time, just do as much as you can on the finals, and then you’ll be done.”
Justin shrugged again. “I don’t want to think about this work. Did you know that at least one of the bullies was in every one of my classes? If I told them to stop bothering me, I’d get in trouble for disrupting class. If I tried explaining myself, I’d be told to not talk back, or the bullies would just be told to stop, but nothing else would happen.”
I scooted the armchair closer to his desk and took his hand. “I wish I could have been there to stop them. For now, will you let me help you make sure they don’t ruin the rest of the year for you?”
“I guess,” he said with another sigh.
I opened up the math book. “We can do a little bit now, and then on Monday you can go through stuff and see what you can get done on your own, and set aside what you want my help with.”
It looked like the math teacher had sorted the papers in among the textbook pages that they were most related to. I took out the first paper and glanced it over. “This one doesn’t look too bad. It’s just calculating volume of a few different shapes. They even list the formulas at the top.”
Justin accepted the paper from me and glanced it over. His hands were shaking, and so did the paper. He shook his head slowly. “I already did this one,” he told me.
“Oh, did you? Okay, maybe he just didn’t grade it yet. We can set that one aside and you can remind him that you already turned it in.”
He shook his head again. “That’s just it. I did the worksheet, but I didn’t turn it in.”
“Is it in your backpack? We could start filling a folder or something with work that’s already done.”
“I was going to turn it in, but the bullies stopped me that morning and took it from me. They copied my work onto their papers and then threw mine away. They even ripped it up and threw it in the trash can with the breakfast trash. The bullies got to class first and lied to the teacher. They said I threw it away on purpose. When I told him what it really happened, he didn’t believe me. When I got beat up a couple days later, I told him again what had happened with that paper, and the principal told him to just let me redo it. Apparently they thought that was a big step up from just giving me a zero for it.”
“But… I’m surprised the teacher even believed they’d done the work.”
“Joke’s on them. I think I got most of the problems wrong.”
“And now I’ll help you get them right. Where are your pencils?”
He kept shaking his head. “I shouldn’t have to re-do this.”
I could tell he was shaking more. He was also breathing harder. I put an arm around his shoulders. “I know. But we can get it done fast.”
“What’s the point?”
“We can do a different one if this one is bringing up to many bad memories.”
Justin slammed the paper down onto the stack on his desk.
“We don’t even have to do math today,” I suggested.
I started to reach for the books, but something seemed to have tipped him over the edge, because a split second later, he’d gotten up from his chair and shoved the books off of his desk. They thudded onto the floor, and many of the papers between them flew through the air like a flock of birds disturbed from their perches.
“I don’t want to do any of this!” he shouted– screamed, really. I hadn’t heard him that loud in a very long time.
Before I could say anything, he was running out of the room. “I’m not doing it!” he declared as he ran down the stairs.
I followed after him at a calmer pace. As I came to the top of the stairs, the front door slammed, and Ms. Anderson stepped out of her room.
“Emory? What’s going on?”
“He’s upset,” I informed her as I headed down the stairs; I needed to make sure Justin was safe.
“Did you two have an argument about something?”
“I’ll be back shortly,” I assured her as I opened the front door. I really didn’t have time to explain.
“Justin?” I called once I’d stepped outside. I closed the front door gently. “Little Moon, I never intended to push you too hard.” I looked left, then right; no sign of Justin. But it was dark outside and he was wearing black, so he’d be hard to see. I focused on trying to hear him, but all I could hear were crickets and distant cars.
“Where did he go…?” I breathed.
Finally I heard it: the muffled sounds of crying, sobs covered up by something or other. I stepped along the path, straining to hear where it came from. It seemed to be straight ahead, where my car was parked. The closer I got to it, the more sobbing I could hear. Definitely from my car, I thought as I got up to the passenger door. I opened it up and found Justin curled into a ball on my passenger seat.
“There’s my Little Moon,” I cooed as I leaned on the door frame (I kept my car clean enough that I could do that without covering myself in dirt and grime). “I was worried about you.”
Justin didn’t say anything. He was still a quivering ball in my car.
I laid a hand on his back. “How’d you get in here, anyway?”
“You didn’t lock it,” he replied in a hoarse whisper.
“Didn’t I? Well… Okay. I’m just glad you’re safe. Can we talk?”
His eyes glistened as he peeked out at me. He gave an almost imperceptible nod.
“Let’s sit in the back seat, okay? Then I can hold you, and your mom will know I’m not about to drive off with you.”
Another weak nod, and then he was climbing over the center console to get to the back seat, as though he couldn’t deal with getting out and then back in.
“Is my mom mad?” he murmured once I was next to him in the back seat and all the doors were closed.
“I don’t think so,” I assured him and I pulled him into my arms. “We didn’t really get to talk before I came out here to make sure you were safe.”
“Oh…” He paused for a few moments, then made himself comfortable against my body. “I didn’t mean to get that mad.”
“Does anyone, really?” I replied.
“I… I’ve been a lot more upset at everything lately,” he admitted. “I keep getting in trouble for slamming doors and knocking stuff over.”
That really wasn’t like him– not because Justin never got upset, but because lashing out wasn’t how he dealt with his emotions. He’d always turned inward; he got quiet, sometimes hid, sometimes cried, and all of that was if he hadn’t given in to what the other person wanted, or if doing so hadn’t ended the issue. Killian and I had tried encouraging him to stand up for himself more, but we also let him know how much we appreciated that he wasn’t aggressive.
“Your life has been turned upside down, Little Moon. And you’ve been hurt. It’s no wonder your temper is on edge.”
“I don’t want to be angry,” he whimpered. “I… I just want… I…” His voice was shaking, and he couldn’t finish the sentence.
I held him closer against me. Just as he rested his cheek over my heart, I heard someone knocking on the car window. I maneuver around so that I could open the door without letting go of Justin; not that I could have put him down, the way he was clinging to me.
“Hi, boys,” Ms. Anderson said. She opened the door wider and peered in at her son. “Did you hurt yourself storming out like that?”
He met her eyes and shook his head.
She sighed. “What’s gotten into you, Justin? I did everything I could, and it’s like it’s not good enough for you.”
“I’m not upset with you,” he murmured weakly.
She leaned on the door frame and shook her head. “Okay, fine. But you threw all your school work onto the floor after I brought it home for you.”
“It… I’m sorry. It was just a bad memory.”
“About the bullies?” she asked. “Look, you’re at home now; you’re not anywhere near them. You can start getting the school work done and focus on graduating.”
He nodded meekly, then looked up at me.
“I’ll keep trying to help him,” I assured her. “I think we just need to give him more time to heal.”
I had to be careful what I said to her, even if I thought she was expecting too much from him too soon. If I made it sound like I questioned her parenting, she would just get upset with me, and maybe even stop Justin from seeing me. Additionally, Justin didn’t want me arguing with his mother, and my own parents had taught me a lot about picking my battles.
“The bruises are almost gone,” she said, scrunching her mouth to one side. “Did he tell you that I took him to urgent care after I picked him up from school that day? He was a mess, just like you see in the movies. Besides, the other parents were taking their boys to doctors, too, and I couldn’t be the only one not giving the school copies of the medical records showing how he’d been hurt. No broken bones, thank goodness. Now you can hardly tell what happened.”
I wanted to remind her that there were psychological effects, too. They might take a lot longer to heal– and they were why he’d shoved all of his books and papers onto the floor. I wanted to tell her what a mild reaction that was compared to how he could have behaved. Perhaps I would have told her how I really felt if I’d thought it would have done any good.
“I’ll do whatever I can for him,” I assured her. That was truer than she realized; I would go to the ends of the earth for her son– and even beyond.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here. You know what boys, it’s Friday night. Let’s quit worrying about homework for now; you can get back to it on Monday, Justin. Why don’t you two just focus on having fun?”
Justin sat up a little. “Really? Does that mean I can hang out at Blackthorne’s place?”
Ms. Anderson blinked, then thought for a minute, then shrugged. “Sure. I mean, if that’s what he wants.” She gave me an uncertain look, as though I’d be upset that he’d all but invited himself over.
“I don’t work again till Monday, so he’s welcome at my place all weekend if he wants to be there.” Except I knew he did, and I knew how badly he needed time away from his cousins.
Justin grinned up at me. “I finally get to see your new place!”
“Okay,” Ms. Anderson said with a half-smile, “just go clean up the mess in your room and get a bag with clothes and your tooth brush.”
“Okay, mom!” he agreed, and before I knew it, he was climbing out of the car and running up the path to the house.
“And don’t forget your shoes!” she called after him. “And a jacket!”
“Okay!” he replied right before slipping through the door.
Once he was inside, Ms. Anderson looked back to me. “Are you sure it’s okay for him to be with you all weekend? The boy hardly eats, so I doubt he’s capable of emptying your pantry, but he needs constant attention just so he doesn’t curl up in a ball and cry.”
Like I’d found him in the car a few minutes ago, I thought to myself. Besides, maybe he needed to cry in order to process his feelings. “He’ll be fine with me, Ms. Anderson. I just appreciate you letting me be there for him.” That much was true; she could have told me to mind my own business and made Justin get through this on his own. “It’s been a big change, not seeing him every day, between me graduating and him moving.”
“I just don’t want him using you as a crutch. He has to be able to do things on his own.”
There was a lot to be said for independence, but I also knew that nobody is an island. It might have looked like I pulled myself together after everything I’d been through, but the truth was that if my parents hadn’t gotten me therapy, or if my mother’s family hadn’t been so supportive and protective of us, I’d never have made it. Life only looked easy because I had a whole support system in place. I often wished that Justin and his mom had that, too.
“I’m happy to be there for him,” I assured her as I slid out of the car. “We practically grew up together, after all.”
“Well, as long as he graduates,” she sighed. “He can’t give up now.”
Justin came back outside a couple minutes later. His shoes weren’t tied yet, but he had his backpack with him, which was so full that it looked like he’d packed for a whole week.
“Where’s your jacket?” his mother asked him.
Justin gestured to his backpack.
“And you cleaned up the mess in your room? You weren’t up there for very long.”
“Yeah, mom,” he insisted. “The kids were up there already helping me.”
Justin dropped his backpack into my backseat and closed the door. His mom fished around in her pocket and pressed part of what she found there into his hand, then gave him a tight hug.
“Make sure you get some food in your belly, okay? And help Emory around the apartment; don’t let him do everything for you.”
“Okay,” he said, trying not to sound impatient.
I opened the front passenger door for him– I could still be a gentleman, no matter how independent she wanted her son to be.
“Buckle your seat belt,” she reminded him. Then she watched me get into the driver’s seat. “If he’s having a hard time, I can come get him. You still have my number in your phone, right?”
“I do,” I agreed, though I wanted to tell her that she didn’t have to act like I was babysitting an unruly kid. This was my best friend, the young man I’d driven across three states to– well, basically to rescue.
“You can still come over for dinner tomorrow and Sunday,” she added. “Just keep in touch, okay?”
“I certainly will, Ms. Anderson.”
I started the car once she was satisfied that Justin was buckled and had closed the door. She waved as we drove away, only going inside when I stopped at the corner and prepared to turn.
“Can I play music?” Justin asked. He already sounded like he was in better spirits.
“Of course.” I slid my phone out of my pocket and handed it to him, and before long he had the soundtrack for “The Crow” playing in the car.
“I brought the movie with me,” Justin informed me as he relaxed in his seat.
“You want to watch it tonight?” I asked. I knew it was one of his favorites.
“Can we?” he said with a grin.
I couldn’t smile right along with him. “Anything to keep seeing you happy,” I told him. “How about we stop by the store and get a few things to eat while we watch it?”
“You mean like popcorn?”
“Whatever you want.”
Justin held up the money his mother had given him. “I got ten dollars this time. We can get red vines and popcorn?”
“Save that for tomorrow,” I urged him. “Maybe we can visit some of the shops downtown and you’ll find something you like.”
There weren’t many grocery stores in Cody, so we ended up at Wal-Mart. I parked the car and reached into the back for my jacket.
“Did you get those shoes tied?”
“Yeah, I’m good; let’s go.” He was already out of the car and heading towards the entrance.
“Hey, did you want your jacket?”
“I’m good. Come on, let’s make sure they’re not out of popcorn!”
I chuckled as I followed him; he certainly was a man on a mission. Once we were inside, I headed over to the produce and bakery section to get some things. I must have been taking too long to choose the pastries I wanted, because Justin wandered off. I didn’t worry about it too much; he could usually be found in one of three or four aisles of any grocery store. I regretted letting him out of my sight, though, because no sooner had I started looking for him than I heard things that nobody deserved to be told.
“I thought I smelled trash!” It was a bratty teenage voice.
“Leave me alone!” Justin snapped; it really can’t be said that he only ever just stood there and took the abuse. Still, I moved faster towards the sound of his voice.
“Didn’t you learn anything from the last time I smashed your face?” another voice asked, cold and acidic.
“He can’t learn,” a third voice drawled. “He’s got too much dick on his mind.”
“Sounds like your own problem,” I heard Justin retort. “I was just looking for candy.”
I heard a smacking sound, a cry of pain, and then several items hitting the floor. I moved even faster.
“Oh, it’s on, trash boy. You gonna talk to us like that? We have no problem smearing you down the aisle!”
I got to the end of the aisle to find three teenagers surrounding Justin. One of them had his shirt twisted around his fist.
“Let go of him,” I demanded.
The bully looked over at me. “And what if I don’t feel like it?”
I kept my eyes fixed on him as I slowly approached. “I told you to let him go.” I could hear how much deeper my voice was as I commanded him. He wouldn’t understand it, but I knew exactly what I was doing.
“Just shut up!” another of the bullies snarled, trying to strike an intimidating pose– though he didn’t know the first thing about being imposing. “We’ll smear you when we’re done with him.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him. “None of you are going to hurt him. Ever. Again.”
The lights above us started to flicker.
“You can’t do anything to stop us.”
I glanced over at the third bully. “I don’t believe you know anything about me.”
“Blackthorne…” Justin whimpered.
“Wow, you’re a total freak,” the one gripping Justin said with a laugh. “What a dumb-ass name.”
I took another step towards him.
“Heh. You want him?” he asked. “Try taking him from me!” He shook Justin roughly.
I gave him a stoic glare, but didn’t say anything. Then I stepped closer to him.
“Back off, you freak!” the bully squealed.
I offered Justin my hand. “Come to me.”
Justin started moving towards me, and I glared at the bully, daring him to try holding him back.
“Hey, come on,” another of them said. “It’s three against two; we can take them!”
“That wouldn’t be wise,” I told him, my voice going even lower. The lights above us went out, but I think they noticed that it was darker than it should have been with just a few dead light bulbs.
“What are you gonna do?” the third one chided. “Show us, freak!”
I gave him a look of disinterest and focused on holding Justin close against me. “Pick up the things you knocked over. Then leave this store and never bother Justin– or anyone else– ever again.”
“You can’t tell us what to do!”
“We’ll tell security!”
“By all means,” I replied. “Report your harassment of this young man. I have done nothing to you. I have said no threats.”
He stared at me, and his eyes widened. He started to back away.
“Clean up your mess,” I reminded them, my tone flat and even.
It only took the three of them a few seconds to put the items back on the shelves and rush down the aisle away from us.
“Stay away from us!” the first bully squealed, no longer able to hide his fear.
“Oh yes,” I agreed. “I hope that Justin and I never see or hear any of you ever again.”
Once they were completely gone, I cupped Justin’s cheeks in my hands and looked down into his eyes. “Are you okay, Little Moon?” I asked in my gentlest voice.
He stared at me for long moments, trembling at first, but then slowly starting to calm down. “I’m okay,” he croaked out. “But your hands are freezing cold. Were you getting ice cream?”
For a moment I worried that he was going to ask me what had just happened. I didn’t remember if he’d ever seen me talk to anyone like that before, and I really wasn’t in any state emotionally where I was prepared to give him a suitable explanation for it.
“No,” I told him, “but that’s an excellent idea. Let’s get the popcorn– maybe some chips– and also some ice cream.”
I grabbed the large bucket of red vines and a bag of soft mints and pretty much threw them in the cart, then led him to another aisle.
“Geez, it’s cold in here at night!” he said. His arms were wrapped around himself, and he was shivering this time.
I slid off my black leather jacket and helped him into it. “Once you put on a little more weight, you’ll be able to handle the cold better.”
“Oh, you think you can fatten me up?”
I showed him the packet of blueberries I’d put in the cart. “Who do you think taught Killian all the best things to feed you?”
His eyes looked a little wild at the sight of blueberries. “Those look really plump!”
“Only the best for you,” I told him. I knew that was his favorite, and I knew the way of serving them that he absolutely couldn’t resist. “Now then, we need vanilla ice cream!”
Justin followed me down to the freezer aisles and watched as I perused the wall of ice cream. He tried showing me the cheapest brand, but I shook my head and took him over to the shelves for Haagen-Dazs.
“Okay, vanilla bean for you,” I said as I handed him a container, “and green tea ice cream for me. Now let’s get the popcorn and head out.”
If I had a full kitchen, I’d get real vanilla beans and do what my dad often did to get even more flavor into the ice cream. He and Justin adored vanilla, the richer the better. Justin would be thankful for anything he got, which only made me want to give him more. Soon, I reminded myself; right now I just had to guide him through this dark time and make sure he didn’t sink.
“Yeah!” he cheered, then dashed off to another aisle.
I probably should have caught his arm and kept him close to me, but I found myself gazing over at the lights above the candy aisle. The bulbs were back on, but the area still appeared to be shadowy. I swallowed hard and rubbed my brow; I think I might have overdone it with the intimidation, and I worried what the repercussions of that might be. I glanced down at my phone, shook my head, and slid it back in my pocket. I could worry about that later; the important thing was that Justin was safe, and he wasn’t questioning how I’d scared his bullies off so easily.
Once we had the microwave popcorn and a couple bags of chips, Justin followed me over to the self-checkout. He tried offering me some of his money again, but I just shook my head and distracted him with picking out a drink and helping me bag. He clung to my arm as we headed out of the store, telling me again that he was cold; I made sure to put the food all the way in the back to that I could put the heat on for him in the front.
Once we got to my place, I could see that the owner of the main house was having his own gathering. Justin seemed impressed by the guest house as well as the fact that the owner seemed so laid back. He could hardly contain his excitement as I unlocked the door and let him inside.
“Wow, it’s really cool!”
Justin ran inside and started looking at– well, everything. Then he disappeared into the bathroom while I was busy putting the food away. I started a packet of popcorn in the microwave and got out a large bowl, and when he came out again, he was in pajama pants and a long-sleeved shirt, as well as fresh socks to keep his toes warm.
“You look cozy,” I told him, then handed him his root beer.
“Yeah,” he replied, setting his backpack on my dresser. Then he grabbed my leather jacket from where he’d put it in my bathroom and slid it back on. “Can I keep wearing this? It’s really comfortable.”
“Sure,” I replied. “Whatever you need in order to stay warm.
Before too long, we had the lights out, the movie on, and lots of popcorn to share. I settled into the recliner and let Justin sit more or less in my lap, since there was really nowhere else comfortable. He was so small and light that it hardly felt like he was there.
“You’ve gotten a lot bigger,” he said in between handfuls of popcorn.
“Haven’t I always been bigger than you?” I chuckled. “I’m a year older than you, after all.”
“A year and three and a half months,” he corrected. “But you’re way stronger now, too.”
He patted my chest and I tried to pretend him pointing out my muscles didn’t make me blush.
“I glad you are,” he went on. “Those bullies were terrified of you!”
So he really thought that was the extent of it. In the past, I’d considered telling him some of the things I’d never told another soul before. He already knew a few things I didn’t tell anyone else; I really couldn’t think of anyone else whom I’m told things he didn’t know. He loved goth culture and style as much as I did, and we both enjoyed even the darkest of dark stories, so I suppose he might have accepted the only detail (or set of details) I’d ever kept from him. But there was no taking back words, so as long as he didn’t need to know, I could put off sharing that with him.
“Well, I’m glad carrying around all those computers and servers worked out in your favor,” I said. “I don’t even have to lift weights anymore.”
He snuggled closer against me. “Plus you’re really warm now.”
We went on watching the movie together, sharing popcorn and red vines just like we might do a the theater. Once we’d had enough of that, I got out the ice cream and some spoons. Justin carved out the middle section of his little carton so that he could pour some of the blueberries in; he enjoyed the contrast of the fresh berries and the rich, creamy vanilla, and I was only too happy to see him eating with actual vigor.
“This is so good!” he said around a mouthful of berries.
“I think I should have gotten you two boxes of blueberries,” I noted as I wiped a drop of cream from the corner of his mouth.
“Hold on!” He grabbed my hand and licked the cream off my finger. He must have realized a little late what he’d done, because he blushed and lowered his eyes before explaining, “I didn’t want it to go to waste.”
“It’s okay,” I assured him.
He turned around to watch the movie and focus on his ice cream. He got through about half of it before declaring that he was stuffed and couldn’t eat another bite. I put the containers back in the freezer and we finished the movie. By the time the credits started rolling, Justin was curled up and nearly asleep. I carried him over to the bed and laid him down.
“I just need a few minutes, Little Moon,” I whispered. He was trying to cling to me, but I needed to get changed before I could lie down.
Justin mumbled something, but eventually let me untangle his arms from around my body. Once in the bathroom, I slid off my shirt and dropped it into the tiny washer. I tossed Justin’s clothes in there, too; he’d left them on the floor in his excitement to get changed earlier. Then I slipped off my belt, hung it on a wall hook, and put my pants in the wash. A few minutes later, I emerged from the bathroom, put my jewelry away on the dresser, and slid into the bed.
“I missed you,” Justin murmured, wasting no time in wrapping himself back around me. “Mmmm…. how are you so warm when you’re only in boxers?”
I pulled the blanket close around us. “I have to be, don’t I? There’s no way I can leave my Little Moon cold and alone.”
His cheek nuzzled against my chest, and I thought in that moment how much we felt like two puzzle pieces perfectly snapped together.
“You smell good, too.”
That had me chuckling. “I might have put on a little too much cologne earlier.”
“Noooo… It’s just right. You always do it just right.”
“Sweet-talker. I think I gave you too much sugar.”
“Mmmm…” He smiled and held me tighter. “I love you, Blackthorne.”
My arms went around him then. It had been so long since we’d said that to each other. We really were like family, and we had promised long ago not to hesitate in telling each other how we felt.
I kissed the top of his head and whispered, “I love you, too little Moon.”
He was quiet for a while after that. I actually thought he’d fallen asleep, but he turned to look up at me– well, in a manner of speaking, since the room was now dark. But I could feel the movement.
“I… you know you’re like a brother to me– better than that, because we don’t fight like brothers do.”
“You’re better than any sibling I could have had.”
“It’s like having a brother and a best friend and a hero all rolled up in one.”
“Oh, so now I’m a hero, too?”
“You came and rescued me,” Justin pointed out.
“I’d cross the ocean to help you, Little Moon,” I told him.
“Oh… wow, when you say things like that…” his voice was starting to shake a little.
“I just need you to know that you’re safe with me.”
“Yeah.. but, umm…”
“What’s on your mind, little moon?”
He hid his face in my chest. “Maybe I shouldn’t say anything more.”
“You’ve got me curious now,” I replied as I feathered my fingers through his hair. “I don’t know if I can sleep if you don’t tell me.”
“Well…” his body was shaking too, now; whatever it was, he was nervous about telling me. “Blackthorne… you’ve been there for me through everything. You even gave me advice for dating Killian… and helped him be with me.”
“Of course I did; I want you to be happy. I’ll get you back in touch with him somehow.”
I felt him shaking his head. “I meant it when I said I should have given him a proper good-bye. He was such a good boyfriend; he deserved to know for certain that it was over when I left. But… it’s too late now. He and I are over.”
“If that’s what you want, Little Moon,” I sighed. “But listen, if you meet someone else, I’ll support you then, too.”
“That’s just it,” he whispered. “I don’t want anyone else.”
“Okay,” I whispered. I was worried that he planned on locking his heart away and isolating himself, but that really wasn’t the right time to argue that point. “You’ll always have a friend in me. No matter what.”
He nodded, but he seemed even more nervous. “Blackthorne…”
“I’m listening, Little Moon.”
“Umm… I wanted to ask you… would…”
“It’s okay,” I assured him, rubbing his back. “take your time.”
“I have to ask you before… well… Blackthorne, would it be… I–” he was breathing harder, and I hoped he wouldn’t shut down. “I think… Blackthorne, I think I’m falling in love with you, and I don’t know how to stop it.”
“Oh,” I whispered. Then I held him tighter. “Little Moon, did you think I would be angry at you if you– if you fell in love with me?” My heart was racing all of a sudden, and I was certain that he could feel it, too.
He shrugged. “You never date anyone. You’ve hardly even slept with anyone. I always wondered if you even wanted that kind of love.”
He had a point, I had to admit. In high school, I’d had a reputation for being stoic, almost stand-offish. There were only a handful of young men and women who could say they’d gone to bed with me. A couple of them had been an ongoing thing for a short time, sort of a friends-with-benefits situation, but we’d talked in the beginning about not being in a committed relationship. My experiences with intimacy had mostly been sensual, a few passionate, but we had always been focused on being safe and seeking pleasure, not ongoing relationships. I just hadn’t found anyone I really wanted to stay that close with for the long term, let alone pass the rest of my time with. But I was only nineteen; I had the rest of my life ahead me for that to happen.
Besides, I had secrets that required me to tread carefully.
“I could never be upset with you loving me,” I whispered back.
His grip on me tightened. “Okay… At least you’re not mad. But how do I stop? I’m scared to lose you as a friend if–”
I didn’t let him continue talking. I leaned in, pulling him up at the same time, until our lips met. I kissed him, one hand cradling the back of his head while my other arm wrapped around his waist to keep him close against me. He sighed blissfully and returned the kiss, clinging to me as though for dear life. By the time we separated, he was breathing hard.
“Oh my god…” he gasped, his voice still shaking.
“You don’t ever have to stop loving me,” I told him. “I care more about you than I can ever say, Little Moon, and even if your feelings change, I wall always be your friend and–”
“And brother?” he finished for me.
We laughed together.
“For lack of a better word, yes,” I told him. “I think you stole all of mine with that kiss.”
“Yeah,” he whispered. His voice was still trembling.
“You have no idea how wonderful it feels to know that you feel this way. You’re a treasure, Little Moon. I… I’m open to seeing where this goes. Can we…” I sighed and took a breath; now I was the one unable to get out what needed to be said. “Can you understand that if I take things slow– maybe even slower than it was for you and Killian– it’s not because I don’t want to be with you? And it’s not because it’s hard for me to love you in that way.”
“I think so…” he murmured.
“I can’t imagine anyone better to try this with. I look forward to exploring these new feelings with you, Little Moon.” I couldn’t really pin down how new those feelings were; they hadn’t sparked just that night, and not even the week before. But could I say that I’d loved him even while he was with Killian? I didn’t want to try disentangling the different kinds of love that I felt.
“Do you… Do you think maybe we should have done this all along?”
I shook my head. “I could never wish that you’d been with me instead of Killian. He did things for you that I never could.” I kissed his cheeks and added, “And I never want you to regret your time with him.”
“Okay,” he whispered. “Ummm… Blackthorne?
“Can… can I kiss you again?”
I chuckled and rubbed his back. “I’d like that very much.”
No sooner had I said that than he had his arms around my neck. He pressed himself against me, chest to chest, belly to belly, our legs entwined, and then locked his lips with mine in a kiss that let me know just how desperately he needed to be loved. I could taste the blueberries and vanilla on his tongue, sweet and creamy. He sighed happily as we kissed, but after a time, I could feel his fingers dig into me. He moaned, clearly wanting even more from me.
“Little Moon,” I gasped when I could no longer resist the need for more air. I massaged his back and shoulders to comfort him.
“Oh my god…” he whispered in a shaky voice. “You taste so good.”
“Heh… I appreciate that,” I chuckled. “I’d like to ask something of you, though.”
“Anything you want.”
“Oh, I am going to teach you to be careful with statements like that. But first, if you’ll indulge me a little, I have to point out that God had nothing to do with that kiss.”
“You were incredible, though.”
“I’m glad to hear that you put me at that level, Little Moon. Still, although I am many things, I am no god.”
“I will tell you what would give my heart the greatest thrill though: say my name.”
“Blackthorne,” he whispered.
“Just like that,” I said, caressing his cheek. “It sounds so beautiful coming from your lips.”
“You’re beautiful,” he said, his voice quavering once again.
I laughed softly. “It’s much too dark for you to see me.”
“That doesn’t matter. The image of you is always in my mind, and you’re always big and handsome and strong.”
“I think of you just as often. You’re very precious to me.”
“Oh… that’s good. Can I… Can I practice that? Saying your name after we kiss?”
I can’t explain why his nervousness was so alluring to me. Anyone else who was that shy would have lost my interest– insofar as intimacy– ages ago. But Justin… Justin was someone I couldn’t resist in the least.
“We can,” I whispered. I could hardly hold back from telling him that I wanted to kiss him long into the night. Take it slow, I reminded myself. He’s delicate; he deserves only the best.
Justin’s lips captured mine while I was thinking, and then his taste was all I could think about. He kissed me as though he’d never be able to kiss again, and thought it had to be the best because it was his last. I gave in to his questing, his needs. I let him do as he wanted, let him know that he could have anything he needed, that I was there for him. I had to assure him that my goal in life was to make him safe and happy. He moaned and sighed as he kissed me, until his fingernails dragged down my back and a louder moan escaped me.
“Oh– Oh, Blackthorne,” he gasped as he lessened his grip on me slightly. “Are you– I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to–“
“I think you did,” I murmured in my most tender voice. I caressed his cheeks gently. “It’s okay, Little Moon. I actually liked it.”
“That wasn’t a cry of pain,” I told him. Then I laughed a little. “Well, not bad pain. I didn’t expect you to do that to me, but you don’t have to be afraid of wounding me.”
“Blackthorne…” he whispered.
“I’m here for you,” I said as I kissed the top of his head. “Now sleep, Little Moon. Dream sweetly as I watch over you.”
Justin snuggled in and relaxed, and he was sound asleep before I could try to see if rubbing his back would help. I laid there with him in my arms and took my time letting my thoughts wind down. I almost expected my phone to start chirping with messages, but after a while of it staying quiet, I was relaxed enough to drift into dreamland right along with him.
Justin talked be through navigating the town. We found a place to get burgers and milkshakes near one of the highways, and found a lonely corner to sit and talk in while we ate.
“I spent some time searching for Killian online last night,” I told him after a while.
“Oh…” he replied, lowering his gaze. “You didn’t have to go to any trouble…”
“Justin,” I said, firming my voice just a little, “He’s your longest relationship. I haven’t even been with anyone for that long. Do you–”
“You didn’t want anyone for that long,” he cut in.
“You know very well that isn’t what’s important here. This is about you and the young man you said you love.”
“The one I moved away from,” he corrected me, his voice barely a mumble. He refused to meet my gaze.
“He knows that’s not your fault,” I reminded him. I laid my hand over his “You must really be in turmoil if you can’t even think logically about this.
He pulled his hand away. “But it is my fault that I didn’t let him know… that I didn’t…”
His voice was getting tight. He stopped talking. I gave him time.
“You don’t have to say it here,” I assured him, knowing that if he kept talking about Killian, he’d soon be in tears. “If he has a Facebook account, he has it set to not be searchable, or it’s not under his own name. I know the format for the school e-mail addresses, but my account was de-activated when I graduated, and I can’t e-mail his school address from my personal account due to system restrictions.”
Justin nodded, and I went on.
“I tried the aliases you’d suggested on every platform I could think of, but if he has accounts with any of them, they’re under a different username.” I sighed heavily. “I’ve tried to find Killian online, but since he’s not public with his real name– not to mention he’s still a minor– he’s well-hidden.”
Another nod. “I’m sorry you wasted all that time.”
“It’s not a waste of time, Justin. He–” I felt my frustration growing. “Really Justin, you were the first person he went to bed with! Nobody else has given you that. He’s special enough to try to track down, and I tried everything I could. I don’t have contact with anyone who’s still at that school, so unless you know someone else I can link to, the only other thing we can do is go there in person.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Justin muttered.
“It could,” I told him. “I know your mom won’t let you go right now, but you’ll be eighteen in a few weeks, and–”
“Let it go,” he said.
“Please,” he added.
I did. I could only hope that he would explain later why he was so determined on giving up on Killian. We finished eating soon after that and went back to driving around town. I stopped by several of the computer and electronics shops in the area to see if any of them could use some extra help, and got a couple good leads. I tried suggesting to Justin that he consider working, mainly so he could occupy his time, but between not having his own transportation and not even being sure whether he’d be going back to school, he wasn’t sure if finding a job was in his best interest. Ms. Anderson probably would have liked seeing him earn some money, but I was there to offer my support, not tell him what to do.
After I took Justin home that evening, I didn’t get a chance to see him again until late on Monday afternoon. It was just as well, because on Sunday I heard back from one of the repair shops I’d given my resumé to, and the owner wanted to test out my skills. Between the classes I’d taken and the tinkering I’d done back home, not to mention my GPA, I had enough skill to help the owner with what he needed. We spent a few hours getting the employment paperwork taken care of, and I helped get the shop organized and cleaned up. I even got a computer up and running; it was a simple matter of the heat sink being clogged with dust and preventing proper air flow.
I also heard back from the person I wanted to rent the guest house from. It turns out that his wife is the cousin of the electronics store owner; they ended up communicating, and since I’d already gotten a job, and nobody else was interested in renting, the place was mine. I spent Sunday evening gathering all my stuff up and checking out of the hotel, then getting set up in my new place. Come Monday morning, I had the trailer emptied of the stuff I needed (some of the other stuff wouldn’t be unpacked until I got to Sacramento) and stowed away. Then I went back to the shop to put in a few more hours of work.
Justin dashed into the car again when I pulled up to the house; he’d been waiting for me out front ever since I’d called.
“Have the children been bothering you again?” I asked as I watched him struggle to get his seat belt buckled. I reached a hand over to help slide it into place.
“It’s not just that,” he grumbled.
I could tell by his tone that there was a lot more going on; it might take all evening to talk through. “I see… Well then, let’s get you some food, and then we can talk about whatever you want to.”
“Sure…” he sighed, staring out the window as we drove. “But… can we not– I mean, can we take it to go? I don’t wanna talk in any of the restaurants here.”
“If it will make you happy, then of course we can do something to go. Maybe some sandwiches?”
He shrugged. “That would be cheap, yeah.” he reach into his pocket and pulled out some money. “My mom gave me five dollars for food.”
I glanced at the money, then focused on the road. “Hang onto that,” I told him, keeping my voice gentle. “I’m buying dinner. It’s great that your mom is doing well enough to actually give you something, but I want you to save it.”
“You don’t have to tell her, right?” I went on. “Keep that for when you’re in town without me and want a little something.”
I could feel the way he stared at me then. “who says ‘no’ to money?”
“I have a job here, remember? I like it so far, too.”
“Heh…” he scoffed, turning back to the window. “My dad would have taken it.”
I knew that, actually. His dad could hardly keep a job, and what money he did make, he spent frivolously. He was a free-loader; a moocher in every sense of the word. He should have been providing for his son, but he hardly ever visited Justin, let alone gave his mother any money. A couple times, he’d shown up with a box of used clothes that reeked of a smoker’s house; a lot of them were too big for him, like his dad had forgotten how thin he was.
I think the man had gotten several other women pregnant before it occurred to him to actually take Medicaid up on their offer to fully cover a vasectomy. I didn’t like being the one to judge, but he couldn’t provide for his son, and I think he had a daughter somewhere who got even less of his support. Justin wouldn’t talk about it, but we’d heard his parents arguing during one of the rare visits. We were in his room, and they were in hers, but the walls were thin, and they were shouting. It hurt to hear what was said between them, how she reminded him of the terminated pregnancy he’d caused back when he was a teenager, or the others that naturally didn’t make it. There was another pregnancy he couldn’t support, and the mother wasn’t going to struggle on her own; that was the year he didn’t pay child support with the excuse that he’d had to pay for the termination.
Another one was adopted out, and he was given no opportunity to prevent that. He tried getting his life together when another of his girlfriends had a daughter, but that didn’t last. His last baby before he went ahead with surgery was stillborn, and that was his latest excuse for buying beer instead of paying back-owed child support. I think Justin was eleven or twelve at the time. When he told me that they always argued when his dad showed up, I wanted to take him to my house and keep him there; it would have been like having a little brother.
Justin’s dad couldn’t even bother to take care of himself, and Justin was almost to the point where he never wanted to see him again. I couldn’t blame him. I sometimes wish that Ms. Anderson could find someone steady and reliable to settle down with, but at least she didn’t bring around anyone abusive. She’d gone for sterilization as early as she could, and put some effort– not the most, if I’m being honest– into caring for her son. I wanted to see life take a turn for the better for him, to give him a break from all the hardships.
I knew a lot about my friend that we didn’t normally discuss. I tried to be there for him, comfort him, give him a place to hang out and introduce him to other people. I think he’d have been a lot more introverted without me– not that that’s always a bad thing, but I hoped that he wouldn’t turn in on himself and hide from the world. This fight at school was yet another blow, another reminder that life was a struggle and he would be crushed under its heel. Killian had tried showing him the light, too, and being torn from him wasn’t helping.
Once we had our chips, sandwiches, and sodas, Justin guided me up a hill and through the gates of an old cemetery. Of course he’d wasted no time in finding the oldest, remotest one in town. To him, they were great places to hide and avoid the bullies. To us, they were quiet places to talk and be ourselves. There was an ancient-looking willow tree on one of the more remote hills in the cemetery, so I parked close to it and we took our lunch and a blanket out and sat in the shade of the willow branches.
“Being up here makes the town seem a little better,” I said after I’d gotten a few bites in.
“Come on, you need to eat.”
He glanced up at me, then away again. “I told you I wasn’t really hungry,” he murmured.
“I know,” I said taking his hand. “But you promised you’d try for me.”
Back at the sandwich shop, he’d tried not to order anything, and then had tried just asking for half a sandwich, I knew he did this when things were really bad, but I wasn’t going to let him fall deeper into his pain. I was relieved that I’d been able to come help him, because even though he probably ate a little for his mom and aunt, it wasn’t nearly enough.
“Little Moon, you’ve lost weight since leaving Portland,” I pointed out.
Justin sat with his knees up to his chest and his arms wrapped around them. His eyes peeked out from behind them.
“Start with the chips if you want, but I need you to eat.”
“Aunt Julia told my mom I’d waste away if I didn’t eat more,” he sighed. I scooted closer to try hearing him better. “I think she didn’t think I could hear them, but I could. She said if I didn’t eat more, my mom should take me to a doctor.”
“Yeah… I know you won’t like hearing this, but she’s not entirely wrong.”
His eyes looked wet, and I caught a glimpse of shame in them before he hid his face again. “I wish they’d just let me make my own choices,” he murmured. “Maybe I’d rather just waste away.”
“Little Moon…” I whispered. “Hey, c’mere.”
I wrapped my arms around Justin’s body and pulled him close. He fit perfectly in my lap, and I held onto him, refusing to let go. He felt so small in my arms; I don’t think I’d held him like that for ages, and in the meantime I’d grown a lot more than he had. Justin didn’t resist; he curled up against me and laid his head weakly on my shoulder.
“Why didn’t I tell him that would be our last goodbye?” he whispered, his voice shaking.
He really knew all the most painful things to say.
“Did you not want it to be?” I asked softly.
“I don’t know,” he whimpered. “I didn’t want to leave Portland, but… We couldn’t have lasted much longer. He’s getting ready for college. Plus he’s really serious about wanting to adopt kids some day. The longer I stay with him, the more it feels like I’m leading him on.”
“We both know you weren’t doing that,” I told him.
“I…” He sighed heavily. “I don’t know why I loved him so much when we have such different goals in life.”
“Hey,” I breathed, putting my fingers under his chin to get him to look up at me. “I know you haven’t stopped caring about him. I also believe that he still cares for you, even if you can’t be together. He’s been very good for you, Little Moon.”
“It’s okay. Give yourself time. I can take you back to Portland. You can say goodbye, or you can be with him a little longer.”
His hands fisted in my shirt, and he shook his head. “Please don’t,” he whispered. “I– I can’t…”
“If it hurts too much, you don’t have to,” I soothed, caressing his cheek.
“I’m a shitty boyfriend,” he sighed, looking away. “I didn’t even give him a chance at closure. What’ll he think if he finds my obituary online?”
“Woah–” I made him face me again. “Little Moon, you can’t– you’re not seriously going to–“
He shrugged. “Here in Cody?” he scoffed. “You have a point; I’d hate to be stuck out here in this ground. Maybe my mom will actually listen to my wishes and cre–”
“Justin!” I cried holding him tighter. “Please, Little Moon… I know we talk a lot about shadows and wear black, but being goth isn’t about wishing for death. Remember what you told Killian? It’s not all doom and gloom, but it’s also not all sunshine and rainbows, either.”
“I…” His voice was trembling. “I don’t know if anything I told him was right.”
“Yeah… I know you’re feeling that way right now. I know you’re in a dark place, but I’m here with you.” I could hear the quaver in my voice to, and I held him tighter, not even realizing until a few minutes later that we were rocking together. “Please promise me you’ll let me get you through this. The pain won’t last forever.”
Justin muttered something, but his voice was too faint for me to make out what he’d said.
“Come on, Little Moon, it’s time to eat.”
He shook his head.
“Yeah… You need it. It’ll give you a little extra strength to get through this.”
“Present you may be overwhelmed, but past you asked for my help.” I reached for his sandwich. “You want the cheese first? I know how much you like provolone.”
I started to slide the cheese out of his sandwich, and he stilled my hand.
“If you don’t start eating, I’m going to–“
“I will,” he croaked. “But if you take the cheese out first, then I’ll end up with a sandwich that has no cheese.”
I looked down into Justin’s eyes. “You can’t scare me like this, Little Moon.”
He nodded and took the first half of the sandwich in his bony fingers. He nibbled on it slowly, still curled up in my lap. It seemed as though the more he ate, the more his appetite came back to him; he ended up finishing the sandwich in record time, then his chips, and then mine.
“Feeling better?” I asked as he drank his soda– root beer, his favorite.
He nodded slowly. “I didn’t mean to upset you,” he murmured.
“With what you said?” I asked, keeping my voice low. “You can talk to me about how you’re feeling, Little Moon. You don’t have to hide your feelings from me just to protect mine. I need to know what’s on your mind so I can help you through it.”
He sighed “What if I’m too messed up to get better?”
“I don’t think you are… very few people are beyond help, Little Moon. And if you need more–“
“I don’t want doctors,” he insisted.
“Okay,” I sighed, knowing that he would only collapse further into himself if I insisted. If he got worse, he’d end up not having a choice, but I think he knew that even without me saying it. “But you have to let me help you, okay?”
He nodded. The movement was very faint, but it was there. He could get through this; he would listen to me, just like he’d listened to Killian. My best friend would come out of this okay.
I set up a couple meetings for rental places the next morning over toast and cereal. Justin called a little after that, but I was already in the Shower. I called him back while I was picking out what to wear, and we made plans to meet once I was done checking on a few potential places to stay.
One of the properties was a furnished apartment in a large complex. It was too big for what I needed, and out of my price range anyway. Another was an expanded basement turned apartment. It wasn’t bad, but the family was clearly very religious, and while I was dressed somewhat business-like that day, and thus didn’t disturb them, my preferred ensembles would.
I visited a couple other places that might work out, but my favorite among them was a detached guest house that was a half-step up from a studio apartment. The kitchen was small and more basic than an apartment, and the counter doubled as a dining table, which suited me just fine. The room was furnished with a full-size bed and a large recliner, a basic television (the owner had upgraded theirs, so placing their old one in the guest house didn’t cost them anything), and a narrow coffee table. The dresser was low and wide, like many hotels had, and it doubled as a night stand. The bathroom had a basic shower-tub combo, and the linen closet (with the only rod for hanging clothes) was accessed through there.
It was great for a guest house, though the layout wouldn’t work for someone wanting an actual apartment. It had paperwork to show that it was up to code, plus space outside for my trailer. It would work great for the five months max that I’d need it. The owner was really laid back– possibly a former hippie. He wouldn’t mind if I had a guest over sometimes; if I paid rent on time and didn’t do anything illegal, I was good. Plus he was open to taking care of paperwork electronically.
Justin looked beyond relieved to see me when I finally arrived at his aunt’s house. He didn’t even have me come in, but hopped into my car.
“Did something happen?” I asked as I drove down the street.
“Huh?” Justin replied. He’d been looking out the window, but he turned back towards me. “Oh, right. Nothing happened; I just wanted to get away from my cousins. They won’t stop showing me every little crayon mark they’ve made, and every stupid way they can turn their body.”
“That annoying, huh?” His scoff confirmed my suspicions. “I don’t remember you complaining this much about Killian’s brothers and sisters.”
“Yeah, well I wasn’t expected to entertain them. Killian took care of it all, or Mrs. Riordan would find something else for them to do. Aunt Julia won’t let me stay in my room alone for that long, and my mom says I have to do what she asks me to.”
“Is it really that bad?”
“They’re little kids, Blackthorne!” he hissed. Then he took a breath and lowered his tone. “They were nice at dinner because their parents were there, but when I have to hang out with them, they have a million questions. ‘How do you spell this?’ ‘What color should I make this?’ ‘Can I have a piggy-back ride?’ God, they can’t even play video games for more than ten minutes without wanting to change things up.”
“You would not have done well with siblings,” I pointed out.
“Thank goodness my mom only had me!”
“I dunno,” I said, “I kind of liked growing up with you around.”
He and I were both only-children, but ever since we’d met, it felt like we were brothers as much as friends. He knew things about me that I hadn’t told anyone else. He’d been there for some of the things that happened in my life– things I didn’t talk about with most of my friends. A lot of them didn’t understand my perspective on life, how I was deep into goth culture, but different when it came to things like pessimism, depression, and counter-culture. He knew that the people I called my parents weren’t so by blood.
That’s not to say that I was given up for adoption at birth, or even that I wished I had been. The mother I was born to treasured me. She devoted herself to my care, researched everything she could about caring for a child, attended all the parenting classes, everything. From what I was able to glean from other members of my family, my father was excited, too. They’d been trying to conceive for years after getting married, so when my mother finally got a positive pregnancy test, they were over the moon with joy. He didn’t participate as much in going to classes or reading, but he seemed so in love, and he’d held my mother’s hand as she gave birth without an epidural. For a while, he was a doting and loving father.
Nobody knows when he changed; if it was sudden or slow, if he kept it hidden at first before doing things that others could see. He couldn’t even keep his story straight about what broke in him; for all the scars he left behind, that would have been nice to know. Or maybe my mother was right that it was better not to try to understand or explain it. Ultimately, my father was taken away for hurting both me and her. I am forever grateful that my mother’s family provided so much support, not the least of which was access to professional counseling.
We moved on. My uncle– my mother’s brother– introduced my mother to the nicest man he knew; a true humanitarian and philanthropist, not the kind that show off outwardly but hide a toxic interior. He was the proverbial white knight my mother needed, and he understood why her family scrutinized his background so closely and even got to know his family before they were allowed to marry. My mother used to want a large family, but my step-father couldn’t have children; after the trauma she’d been through, her priorities had changed, and she was content having only me and him.
I didn’t know it until a few years after the fact, but my biological father died in prison. I don’t want to talk about how it happened, but it helped my mother move on. He had refused to voluntarily terminate his parental rights, and the legal proceedings to force the issue were time-consuming. I don’t know whether he thought he could be rehabilitated, but the thought of having him back in my life was terrifying, and I didn’t want to go through more therapy just to be able to see him.
I was happy with my mother’s new husband, and the day the paperwork was signed and we went to court for him to officially adopt me and become my father was more cause for celebration than anything else in my life. It was like having two birthdays, because we celebrated both my birth and my adoption every year after that. All of those events were before Justin came to my school. We were friends, but sometimes it was like having a little brother– in all the best ways, not the annoying ones. For a time, life was grand, and I felt self with the family I had.
Things with my birth-father’s family weren’t so straightforward. I was told that my paternal grandmother adored me, but I really don’t remember her; she’d died of cancer when I was about two years old. Her husband– my father’s father– was something of an enigma. When I was little, he seemed like a nobleman from centuries past; he always carried himself with an air of nobility. He came to family visits now and then, but after his wife died they dwindled. I was told that he liked holding me and playing with me when he did come by, though I remember him more as being– well, it’s hard to describe, but the closest words I could think of were ‘wistful’ or ‘concerned.’ Looking back, I sometimes wondered how much he knew about what his only son was doing to us.
I was four years old when my father was taken away. The preschool had seen the bruises; at first, they’d accepted that little boys can be rough-and-tumble. But eventually, the bruises got worse, and then there were scratches, and I was always too sore to play. I stopped being cooperative, partly because I was scared and in pain, and partly because I wasn’t sleeping well. When Child and Family Services came to our house– again, this is what I was told later on– my father tried to explain everything away, but once she was alone with the agents, my mother finally found the strength to confess what had been going on.
My memories from that time are mostly a blur. With my father in prison, I started to heal, and life for a while was mostly visits to the pediatrician and child psychologist. Life started to get a lot better, and as I felt safer and happier, I started making new memories. My grandfather wasn’t in many of them, but I did get to see him now and then. His smile sometimes seemed… sad, not because of me, but I remember that whenever I got to see him, I would ask him at least once what was wrong. He usually just said that he was remembering someone he missed or some other watered-down version of what he really felt. Then he’d re-focus on whatever we’d been doing together.
I found out later that he knew my father was not being good to my mother. He knew they were fighting, though he explained it to me that they seemed to only be arguing, that he didn’t know how bad it was until it was too terrible to hide anymore. He felt so guilty for not seeing it sooner that he accepted my mother’s wish that he not visit for a while. Eventually, he came around a few times a year, but that was rare compared to how often I got to see my mother’s parents.
I was in middle school when I lost my mother. She’d been on a train, traveling for work, and it derailed. They say she went quickly, not having to suffer in pain waiting for the rescue teams. Justin went to her funeral with me. His mother let him stay with me so I’d have a shoulder to cry on. My father (I’d been calling him that since before I was legally adopted) took extra time off from work to help me through the grief– and to make sure he got the support he needed, too.
My paternal grandfather came to see me more often after that. I don’t know how much my mother had told my adoptive father, but he never held a grudge against my grandfather. I think he somehow knew that he would never harm me, and that he would have taken action sooner if he’d known the truth of what was happening. When I was in high school, I learned things about my grandfather that nobody else in the family knew. I was angry with him for burdening me with his secrets– especially the things that made me believe he shouldn’t have been so blind as to what his son was doing. Like my mother had, I told him that I needed to see less of him; at the very least until I could process it all.
My adoptive father didn’t rush to remarry, so for a few years it was mostly just him and me in the house. He looked after me like he always had: like I was his own flesh and blood. We still visited Mother’s family for holidays and special weekends; we couldn’t turn our back on them. He did meet someone eventually, though, and she was welcomed into the family once everyone was certain that she would take good care of me. She could never take the place of the woman who gave birth to me, but she’s very nurturing; most importantly, she’s accepting of my aesthetic and my sexuality.
She, too, legally adopted me. Some people might say that it wasn’t necessary, that I was two and a half years from being an adult myself, but a lot can happen in that time. Besides, being loved and wanted is way better than having to act strong. If you have it, embrace it; if you don’t, find the strength and support you need. Justin was there with me when my father remarried, and again when we went to court for the adoption proceedings. Those were the parents who were there for me when I graduated high school, and who gave me the freedom to explore how I wanted to handle the next stage of my life.
And although Justin was dating Killian at the time, he never stopped spending time with me or sharing in major events in our lives.
When we let go, Justin stared up at me. I was afraid he was going to start crying right then. “It looks like you’ve healed up well,” I said. I cupped his cheeks and ran my thumbs over his skin. There was only a little scarring on his right cheek and temple, and just the slightest discoloration.
“Yeah,” he scoffed, looking away. “Well, it’s been a few weeks.”
“Come on, boys,” Ms. Anderson called from the dining room. “Dinner is ready.”
I gave Justin another squeeze before following him into the dining room. A couple younger teenagers were bringing dishes from the kitchen and taking their seats.
“Oh, Emory,” Ms. Anderson said as a woman close to her age came out with a pitcher, “this is my sister, Julia– Justin’s aunt. Julia, this is the young man I was telling you about, Emory Thorne.”
We exchanged pleasantries and shook hands, and I was relieved to see that she was accepting of me. Even with my style toned down, there were still people who didn’t appreciate the long hair or the jewelry. I’m sure Ms. Anderson had told her what she knew about me, which included the fact that being goth didn’t mean I was interested in causing trouble– “Raising Hell,” one of my other friend’s grandmother had called it.
Then the two younger children I’d seen earlier walked in, herded along by a man who looked like he worked an office job of some sort. He was introduced as Julia’s husband– Justin’s Uncle– who seemed just as welcoming as everyone else. We sat down for dinner together, Justin to my left, looking shy and staying quiet. Here he was, being welcomed by his aunt and uncle and cousins like he’d always been there, yet he was still on edge. He hardly took any of the roast beef as it was passed around, and then only a few potatoes. When he passed me the dishes, I tried getting him to take more, just like I always had when he’d come to my house for dinner, but he would only do so begrudgingly.
The food was amazing. Justin’s aunt was an excellent cook, and so were the teenagers who’d helped her. I listened to them talk, and eventually joined in on their conversations. Everything I heard and saw told me that this should have been a positive environment for Justin. His aunt only worked part-time, and it was mostly on the weekends or while the kids were at school. She had time to help with homework and teach life skills, and had made Justin a part of that. I only wished that she lived somewhere else– somewhere with a school that would stop bullying before it got as bad as it had for my friend.
By the time we’d finished our plates and Julia came out with dessert, Justin announced that he was full and asked if he could show me his room and the backyard. His mother didn’t argue with him, and as much as I wanted to see him eat more, so I just followed him to the kitchen with our dishes.
“You still eat like a bird, I see,” I noted as he rinsed our plates– he wouldn’t let me help– and placed them in the dishwasher.
He shrugged. “That’s just how I am. Can we not talk about that, though?”
“Of course,” I replied. “I’m here for you, Little Moon. Simply lead, and I will follow.”
He washed his hands, then took mine and led me up the stairs. His room was the last one at that end of the hall. It wasn’t as big as the one back at my parents’ house, but it was a lot bigger than what he’d had in his mother’s apartment. It probably used to be a guest room, but that was just as well, since he didn’t own much. I was more glad to see that he had a comfortable bed to sleep in, plus a big chair to read in. He had a desk and a shelf for his books, but neither had very much on it. He sat on the edge of his bed, and I sat in the recliner next to it.
“It looks like you’ve gotten a few new books since you arrived here.”
He glanced over at the bookshelf and shrugged. “Maybe one or two. Most of the ones you think are new are ones that Killian gave to me before I left.”
I nodded. I had to hold back from sighing at the mention of that name. “Does he know what happened yet?”
Justin shook his head. “Like I told you, his phone number was in the phone that got destroyed.”
He already knew how I felt about only keeping details in one place; I wasn’t about to point out how right I’d been or rub in his mistake. “Justin… have you tried to look up his address somehow? Or his social media?”
Another shrug. I know he didn’t mean to seem uncaring; it was more of a hopeless gesture. “I don’t remember any of his usernames; you know I don’t like social media, so I never put much thought into stuff like that.”
“But–” I sighed. The only e-mail address he’d had was the one from the school, and he no longer had access to it. For not being a Luddite, he knew precious little about which social media sites were popular or had a certain reputation, or even which ones his friends actually used. “I wish I’d had a way to get that information for you. I tried asking around, but I couldn’t come up with anything. Some of my friends from high school have moved away for college, the others didn’t know Killian or his other friends very well, and I couldn’t get contact information for anyone in your grade who could put me in touch with him.”
“It’s okay,” Justin mumbled, sounding defeated. “You and he were in different social circles. I should have just told him it was over on the day I left.”
The fact of the matter was that Killian was Justin’s boyfriend. They’d been together for a little over a year and a half, and Killian really seemed to want to help him. Justin and I came from the same middle school, and Killian’s friends were from another; they were all the same grade-level, and Justin had a class with them here and there.
Back in middle school, Justin would spend lunch with me and a few other people with similar interests. He missed me when I moved up to high school, but we were right back together the next year. He sometimes invited Stefan and Leila to sit with us for lunch, and when Killian– who turned out to be Leila’s cousin of some sort– enrolled in our high school, Justin befriended him fairly quickly. I was mostly happy for him when they started dating; Justin needed somebody steady, and anchor to keep him from merely floating through life. I didn’t like seeing him only have fleeting or casual relationships– they really couldn’t even have been called that.
Perhaps I should have gotten to know Killian better. He was my friend’s boyfriend, after all, and they’d gotten serious enough that he let Justin take his virginity. Killian wasn’t goth, but he never looked down on us, and the fact that he was from Ireland should have held more of my interest. Perhaps it was the fact that he and his friends were in the school orchestra, whereas I was taking extra computer classes, getting ready to graduate, and writing some code for a project. I was just glad to hear Justin talking about being happy with Killian when I did get to see him.
“You were right,” he sighed. “I should have written it all down in– what did you call it? Triplets?”
“Triplicate,” I said. “But–“
“What kind of boyfriend was I to only rely on my phone to store all his information?”
“Being hard on yourself now won’t fix anything,” I pointed out.
He shrugged. “Probably not.” He sighed and sat quietly for a few minutes before saying, “You know what else I’ve been thinking? Why didn’t Killian insist on me having his information as much as you did? Sometimes it seems like he didn’t want a long-distance relationship.”
“He’s… Justin, I’m certain that Killian is more honorable than that. He would have said a proper good-bye if he wanted to end the relationship.”
“I can’t blame him, though,” Justin went on. “I was a mess that last day; he didn’t have the heart to break up with me. Instead he went with me wherever I wanted, did whatever I wanted, even making love under that really old tree at the edge of the cemetery– at midnight.”
I gave a soft chuckle. “Heh… He always did pamper you. Justin, he made sure that you’d know how much he loves you.”
“I– ah–” He gave a frustrated sigh. “Can we stop talking about him?”
“Right, of course, I shouldn’t have pressed the issue.”
“It’s fine… I…” He frowned and got up from the bed. “Can we go out back? There’s a really nice porch swing out there…”
“Lead the way,” I told him, and got up from the chair. Some fresh, cool air would do him some good right about then.
The backyard was just as big as he’d described it. The dogs were friendly and well-behaved; one was a collie, the other a golden retriever. Justin seemed glad to have the chance to interact with them, which reminded me of how much he’d liked the black cat I used to have. He tossed a ball for the dogs to chase after, then sat down on the porch swing. I sat beside him.
“I’m here to listen to whatever you feel like talking about,” I said after a few minutes of quiet swinging.
“I don’t know what to say anymore,” he sighed.
“That’s all right,” I replied. “Have you heard anything more about how the school plans to keep you safe for the rest of the year?”
He shook his head. “The bullies weren’t expelled, just suspended, so what good would anything else do? If I went back there, they’d probably try provoking me into hitting them again.”
“They sound like scum.”
“Have any of their parents helped get your phone replaced?”
“Not yet… My mom’s calling the school on Monday to check on things, but I don’t think anything will go our way.”
“What about graduation?”
“I’ll have to wait to find out.”
I sighed. “Over three and a half years of solid work, and they’re going to give you trouble over the last quarter?”
“Yeah, well, if the school was as nice as my aunt’s place, I wouldn’t have anything to complain about.”
“In which case,” I added, “I wouldn’t be at your side now.”
He looked up at me, his eyes watery again. “Thank you so much for coming.”
He scooted closer to me, and I laid my arm around his shoulders.
“We’ve been friends for years,” I replied. We’d even gone to elementary school together, after all. “Of course I came.”
“How long can you stay?” His voice was soft, almost faint, as though he were nervous that our time together would be short.
“Well…” I thought as we swung, “if I can get a job and a place to stay, I can be in Cody until it’s time to go to Sacramento.”
“Really?” he asked. He sat up, and his face looked a lot brighter. “All spring and…”
“And all summer,” I finished for him, nodding.
“So we can see each other all the time!”
I smiled and pulled him back against the swing again. “You needed a friend, right? I would enjoy seeing you every day.”
“Just like old times,” he said.
Justin curled against me and we swung quietly for a while. He seemed to be content to swing until night fell, and to stay right there even as the moon crossed the sky. I wouldn’t have minded, but I had a lot of things on my mind– concerns for him that he’d wanted to avoid that evening. That was fine; I’d only just arrived, and he had time to make his own decisions. I had my own ideas about what I wanted for him, but he had to make his own choices. I hoped that I could guide him, or at least be there for him.
“Justin…” I said after a while, hoping he hadn’t fallen asleep.
His head turned so that he could meet my eyes. “Hmmm…?”
“I understand that you won’t know more about school until Monday,” I said, keeping my tone soft, “but I think we should talk a little more about Killian. Not right now… Maybe tomorrow? You could take a drive with me, show me around town. We could talk over lunch.”
“Well… I… Of course I’ll ride with you and tell you about the town. I just don’t–“
“I’m buying lunch,” I filled in. “I invited you, didn’t I? You need to get a couple extra sandwiches in you.”
He smirked a little. “I don’t want you to waste all your money on me…”
“It’s not a waste to help a friend,” I replied. “I have enough to get by on until I get a job here.”
“Sure, I guess,” he sighed. “Oh– but what about your job back in Portland? Blackthorne, I hope I didn’t make you leave something really good.”
“It’s all right,” I insisted. “I took a leave of absence, and they understand that I may or may not be back temporarily. Justin, I promise you that me being here is fine. It’s not often that a friend can be here like I am now, so please don’t let your worry push me away.”
“I– but…” He sighed again and looked away. “God, why did I leave like I did? I should have argued with my mom more about staying with you or Killian. You should have heard us argue when she brought me home after the fight at school.”
“I’m sure you had some choice words for each other.”
He winced at the memories. “What I said sounded really mean,” he admitted, “but it was true. The other kids were saying some really nasty things. They’ve been rude ever since I enrolled, but that day was just… God, it was over the top. But it wouldn’t have happened if I was back in Portland.”
I nodded. “That’s true. Sometimes the truth needs to be said.”
“Yeah,” he scoffed, “but she says there are also times when it doesn’t need to be said. Like the part about her working harder so she could keep her job and take better care of me.”
“You went straight to the heart of the matter, didn’t you?”
Justin nodded. “I’m not sorry for saying it.”
I don’t think he gave a damn how petulant he sounded in that moment. “The truth hurts sometimes. Still, you know that she’s been working hard for you, don’t you?”
He gave an exasperated sigh. “I guess… yeah. It’s not like I know what it’s like doing two part-time jobs. I just wish I wasn’t the one getting screwed over when I didn’t even want to move.”
It wasn’t easy talking to Justin about his mother. Ms. Anderson had been about my age when she’d had Justin, and even my parents agreed that she had been woefully unprepared for parenting. She had moved frequently up until coming to Portland, where she was finally able to carve out some semblance of a life for her and her son. It had never been easy for them, but the good news was that when Justin enrolled in school, he was placed across from my fourth-grade class.
At that school, third and fourth grade often crossed paths. We were able to sit together at lunch and talk about books during recess. We spent mornings in the school library, and after school he’d come home with me to get help with his homework. I think his main incentive for getting it done was being able to play video games afterwards, but why argue with what works? Ms. Anderson said that his grades had never been better. I think she was also grateful that he wasn’t home alone while she worked, and that my parents didn’t seem to mind being just a few steps away from being babysitters.
We had other friends, too, back then. A few came and went, but Justin stayed, and he followed me up through the grade-levels. He was able to get Bs and Cs on his report cards, and I remember him being surprised the first time he got an A. I never pointed out that I rarely got a C; it was mostly Bs and a few As for me. Math and science were my strong points, since they were more closely-linked to computers and electronics. My father liked to examine (and sometimes fix) electronics, and I’d usually help; Justin was welcome to join in when he was at my place, too. I didn’t really judge him for being content with just getting by, but I did stay focused on my goal of working with technology. I wasn’t exactly aiming for MIT, but being able to make a good living wherever I went, doing something interesting, was worth the effort.
“Your safety is the most important thing right now,” I told him. “You shouldn’t have to go back there if they don’t plan on keeping you out of harm’s way.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, “I think my mom finally sees it that way, too. I just want to be done with school.”
I nodded. “Just a little longer. Put things in perspective, Little Moon: you’ve worked through all the other grade levels. Now you just have one more quarter to finish before you can get your diploma.”
He sighed. I didn’t press the matter; I was sure he understood it as well as he needed to. Finishing high school was the bare minimum he’d need in order to get by, and I didn’t want him to give up when he was so close to that accomplishment, but I could get him through it gently.
Justin remained close to me, and we went back to swinging quietly until the younger children ran outside to play. That seemed like my cue that it was time to go; if I called it a night early, I could be up the next morning looking for a job and a place to stay. I let him walk me out front to my car.
“You can call me any time you need to, okay?” I reminded him. “If you’re lonely or need a friend… anything at all. I’m here to make sure you make it through to the next stage of your life.”
Justin nodded. He glanced up at me, then down at the ground. It was too late though; I’d already seen the way his eyes glistened. I pulled him close for a hug.
“I know life isn’t great right now,” I whispered. “you’re not alone in the darkness, though. I’m right here.”
He clung to me for long, silent minutes. I knew he was trying to be strong. He shook — faintly, but I could tell. He Swallowed hard. Normally I would encourage him to let it out, to talk about it. That evening, though, it seemed like too much to ask him to face. Emotions should flow, but his would have been a flood.
“I’d text you when I get back to the hotel, but you don’t have a phone. I’m not sure if your aunt wants me calling the house this late…”
“It’s okay,” he said.” I’ll call you when I get up tomorrow.”
“Good” I said, lifting his chin with my fingers so I could meet his eyes. “It’s okay to call again if I don’t answer– or at least leave a message. Don’t be shy about calling me.”
He nodded again but he still looked sad. He had reason to, of course, after another hug, I told him good night and got in my car. He stood in the doorway of his aunt’s house and watched me drive away.
My Gothic Boyfriend: An accompaniment to “The House of the Seventh Minuet”
Notw: This is a M/M gothic love story that has detailed descriptions of a character’s suffering in addition to sexual content. Please check check the story’s introductory page to read all the trigger warnings. Thank you, and happy reading!
It was a long drive to Cody, Wyoming from Portland. A lot longer than the drive to Sacramento I was originally planning to take. But plans change, and this change was important; I was needed.
I had my most important belongings packed into my Outlander and the trailer attached to it; clothes, bedding, a few books– things that I would need every day. I wasn’t towing any furniture, and most of my books and décor were still at my parents’ house, waiting for me to settle in somewhere long-term. As I said before, that was going to be Sacramento, but that could wait a few more months. Until then, I could make do with renting a place that was already furnished for the short-term.
My friends from high school would never have guessed that I’d end up in Cody. Neither would I. Still, that was where Justin had moved to with his mother, so that was where I needed to go. I wish I could say that the reason for the journey was to explore Yellowstone National Park together. Sadly, this was more of a rescue mission than a vacation.
When they’d moved and I’d spent my last day with Justin, I made sure he had my address– written down, not just stored in his phone. His device was old, and I was surprised that it hadn’t broken already. He seemed to think that having everyone’s contact information in one place was a good idea, and I had to spends several minutes convincing him otherwise. I also got the address where they were moving to from his mother, just in case.
My going-away present to Justin was an old-fashioned stationery set, complete with pens and a set of stamps. I’d written my address on some of the envelopes for him, just to make sure he had it. He promised to write to me. Even if he texted me along the way, or when he arrived at his aunt’s house in Cody, he would write. Letters are one of life’s simple pleasures, and I didn’t care what his handwriting looked like; I just wanted something more than a text.
It was such a relief to me when I got his first letter. He talked about his aunt’s big house and how the yard in the back had plenty of room for him to play with his cousins and their dog. It was a big change from living in a cramped two-bedroom apartment; that place had hardly been as big as some of the nicer one-bedroom apartments I’d seen in the area. I was happy for him. His aunt had even taken some pictures and printed them out at one of the local kiosks, so I could see him in his new room, and another of him in the backyard under a tree; there was just enough sunlight shining through that I could see his rich brown eyes.
A few weeks later, he stopped texting. He used to at least send a ‘good night,’ but then even those stopped. He didn’t reply to anything I sent. He didn’t pick up when I called. I’d been planning to send him a letter, so I mentioned how his lack of messages worried me. I wrote down my phone number for him again, just in case. And my address, in case the envelope tore when he opened it. The relief I felt when I got another letter from him was immense. That is, until I read it.
Things had stopped going well in Cody. He was absolutely miserable. He had no friends there, only family, and his cousins were all younger than him by at least three years. He didn’t write much outside of hating it there. Thank goodness he gave me his aunt’s home phone number! When I called him, he explained everything: the bullies, the suspension, his phone being in pieces, his hopelessness…
I had to go there. The only thing I could do was be there for him, especially since nobody else was. To be fair, his mother wasn’t punishing him, but she also couldn’t protect him every minute of the day. Some might say that neither could I, but I hoped that having a friend around would mean something. On the phone, he agreed that it would be nice to see a familiar face.
My parents were less excited to see me leaving home early, but with me being nineteen and having proven to them time and again that I was careful and responsible, they couldn’t do anything besides wish me well. They understood me; they knew that being there for a friend was important to me. I’d often wished Justin had parents like mine; open-minded, thoughtful, supportive. I don’t mean to make it sound like Justin’s mother wasn’t supportive; she tried, but it was a struggle for her. Moving to Cody to live with her sister was a great step for her, but it didn’t benefit her son in the same way.
I’d continued living with my parents even after finishing high school the year before. Although I didn’t start college right away, I had a job, and I had things I wanted to do. The proverbial ‘gap year’ was a wonderful decision. I could earn– and save– more money, get more books checked off of my reading list, spend time drawing, and even do some independent study in between exploring the state.
Eventually, I’d settled on a college I wanted to attend, applied, and got into an engineering program that would help me enhance my computer and electronics skills. I had scholarships and grants lined up, and my grandfather would be taking care of the rest. I also had money saved up for expenses outside of tuition.
Going to Cody that spring wouldn’t be getting in the way of my college plans. As long as I was in Sacramento in time for the fall semester to start, I could see Justin through what he was dealing with. He was a year behind me. He was supposed to graduate high school that May, but the bullies had gotten in the way of that. His mother wasn’t wealthy, and his father wasn’t around, but he’d always done a decent job in school. He wasn’t an honors student, but not everyone has to be. The point is, his grades weren’t an issue.
I pulled into Cody in the evening around the middle of March. I got a hotel room for the night– long-term lodging could wait– and called Justin. He wanted to see me right away. For anyone else, I would have been too exhausted to socialize. For him, I made the extra effort, and was soon in the shower. I didn’t have to dress quite as fancy as I normally did, so I pulled on a long-sleeved black shirt with dark blue stitching. Once that was buttoned up, I chose some black slacks and a matching leather belt with a wolf’s-head buckle, then slipped into one of my simpler pairs of boots. After putting on a couple of my favorite rings, I headed out to the car.
Justin’s aunt’s house was one of the nicer ones for its neighborhood; modestly middle-class and mostly well-maintained. As Justin had said, it was a lot nicer than the apartment he used to live in. His aunt wasn’t charging them rent, but did have her sister helping with other bills and typical household stuff; I could see why Justin’s mom was so set on the idea of moving there.
I parked along the curb in front of the house and took the path up to the door. My parents had taught me that a gentleman always offers to bring the host something– and to bring a small gift even if they insisted that they didn’t need anything– so being empty-handed that evening felt strange. The house sounded excited inside even before I rang the doorbell. It took a couple minutes for the door to open, but when it did, Justin’s mother was smiling brightly.
“Oh, Emory, I’m so glad you made it!”
She held her arms open wide for me, and I accepted a brief hug from her. She had always insisted on calling me by my given name, rather than my preferred one, but since she was otherwise accepting of my gothic nature, I didn’t complain.
“Thank you for inviting me over, Ms. Anderson,” I replied as I stepped into the house. The entryway was a short hallway with places for coats and backpacks, which opened to a wide, bright living room where a couple young children were coloring at a coffee table.
“It’s you I’m thankful for,” she said in her familiar, work-weary voice. She was a thin woman, not so much from working out or dieting, but from simply having less to eat. Justin was the same way. Neither were very tall; I was a little over six feet, and they had to look up to meet my eyes. Justin might be able to grow a couple more inches if his nutrition improved– well, continued improving. “Justin’s been in a slump ever since we moved.”
If I’d thought it appropriate to speak my mind, I might have told her that she should have waited until the school year was over before moving. Even if she’d been too proud to accept help from the Riordan family, she could have skated by in that apartment; the eviction process takes months, and she might have found another job in that time. Most importantly, Justin could have graduated instead of being bullied. Again, my parents had taught me better, and being devoted to a gothic lifestyle didn’t excuse me from being a gentleman. After all, they didn’t have to let me see Justin or invite me into their house, and criticizing Ms. Anderson wasn’t going to help the situation.
“Blackthorne!” Justin’s voice came from another part of the house. Then he came running out. “Blackthorne, you’re here!”
“That I am,” I replied. I tried to sound stoic, but I couldn’t help but smile.
In an instant, Justin’s arms were clamped around me. He might have wrapped his legs around me if he’d thought he could get away with it in front of everyone else. I held him back just as tightly.
“It’s so good to see you again, Little Moon,” I murmured into his ear. I called him that because he’d had a hard time choosing a goth name. He’d considered Shadow Moon, Blood Moon, Moonshadow, and a few others, all of which were too cliché, and since he was so much smaller than me, I just called him Little Moon. It sort of stuck, though I was the only one he didn’t complain about using the ‘little’ part; everyone else just called him Moon.
Are you ready for the story of Emory and Justin? “My Gothic Boyfriend” goes back a few years from when “The House of the Seventh Minuet” takes place to show what happened at the end of high school, and how these two young men ended up together. Happy reading!
Thank you so much for reading “The House of the Seventh Minuet“! It’s been a lot of fun to write, from the serial format to the characters to the light-hearted style. Stefan and Leila will be back in “The House of the Eighth Minuet,” but first, I will be posting a gothic story based around two of their friends: Justin and Emory.
“My Gothic Boyfriend” will have a few trigger warnings, which I recommend checking on if you’re sensitive to certain topics. It’s a male/male gothic romance, and I really think you’ll enjoy it if you like M/M or dark themes.
Keep an eye out for more updates, from art to sneak peaks, and also check out my playlists and my other stories!