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.