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.