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.