TW: depictions of wounds and physical attack.
The weeks passed by in a hazy bliss that made the days blur together and my heart feel light. Beautiful days spent together, eating, watching movies, playing games, talking under the old oak tree. Even when we were at work, it felt as though we were together, because we were working towards the same– or at least similar– goals.
There were dinners at his aunt’s house now and then, and afterwards we’d talk about our plans for Sacramento. We even had a couple conference calls with my parents, so we could all talk about ensuring that Justin and I would have a place to live once we got there. We worked out a lot of the logistics, including finances. I had some student aide for attending the university, plus my scholarship, but I would also have access to an account that had been set up for me from old savings accounts and insurance pay-outs. Ms. Anderson was sad to see her son go, but she trusted me, and she knew that I would be making the most of that money, not squandering it. Once classes started and I had a feel for how to manage my time, I could get a part-time job.
Justin and I also spent some evenings with Cadence and Rainbow in order to help plan their move. We still wanted to caravan together if we could, so discussing how things were progressing was important. Rainbow was around three years older than me and hand been taking her time with college; Cadence was a little older than her and had finished her arts degree the previous year. They balanced each other out beautifully, and I figured that they had a good chance of staying together and possibly even getting married.
Cadence discovered that Justin liked to draw during his breaks at work. He didn’t do things like the classical artists did, and if anything, his style reminded me of the work of Jhonen Vasquez. She ended up encouraging his artistic side, and even brought him a sketchpad and better pencils so that he wasn’t just drawing on printer paper with a plain #2 pencil. She encouraged him to play around with different styles and techniques to see what he liked and what he had a talent for, and she shared even more art supplies. As I had no artistic ability and could only make technical diagrams at best, I really appreciated her encouraging him.
“I never had a lot of art supplies growing up,” Justin had told her. “Even paper was expensive sometimes, so I did most of my sketches on the back of my worksheets from school. Sometimes Dad would bring me some stuff, but it was always the cheap kind, or a bunch of used stuff.”
He never complained, though. Usually he’d go straight to the kitchen table to use the watercolors or experiment with the crayons. We’d try to ignore his mother chewing out Raymond, which really didn’t last long, as Justin would break it up by saying how grateful he was, or she’d have to go to work. Killian gave him a sketchbook and some mechanical pencils one holiday, and Justin eventually filled it up. Cadence wanted to see it, but he’d given it to Killian as a parting gift; I think a lot of the drawings were of him, anyway.
Justin eventually started buying his own art supplies. Cadence had wanted to take him to a specialty crafts store, but I managed to convince her that he’d become overwhelmed and discouraged once he saw the prices there, and they got some of the nicer things at Wal-Mart instead. Even though there were affordable brands at the craft store, the high-end, professional stuff made exploring the arts daunting. I wanted to ease him into it; let him practice his skills and gain confidence, then slowly ease into the fancier tools. Besides, his resourcefulness was an asset, and it helped him develop his skill.
By then, high school graduation had passed, and Justin was still too focused on getting healthy and discovering more about himself to worry about where he would get his diploma. I offered to help him gather information on his options, but ultimately agreed that we would save that discussion for when we’d settled down in Sacramento. His priority was to get all of his paperwork and records together and stored in the fire safe he’d bought with the money from his father.
One of the best days of that summer was when he visited the hospital for one of his appointments and weighed in at 108 pounds. He’d been told for the past few visits that once his BMI was in the healthy range– and his counselor agreed that he wasn’t at risk for regressing– he would no longer need parenteral nutrition supplements and could have his central line removed. He’d been working hard to eat well, and had made steady improvement ever since being admitted to the hospital.
Justin wasn’t nervous about the removal until the doctor started explaining the process. The doctor wasn’t comfortable with sedating him, but when he started hyperventilating and broke out into a cold sweat, he was given a small doze of Diazepam. That ended helping him a lot; he was able to comply with all of the instructions for the removal, and the central line came out without any problem.
We left the hospital ready to celebrate how well he’d done. He’d still be monitored and visit the counselor every week– possibly every other week, if he did really well– until we left town. I was so proud of his bravery and determination to get better. He was stronger, he had more energy, and his depression wasn’t nearly as bad as it used to be. His mother was thrilled that he’d made it that far; she tried to hide it, but I noticed her shedding tears of joy and relief.
Justin picked up a few more hours at work now that he didn’t have to visit the hospital quite as often. It was only three or four more hours each week, but to him it was an important step. Not only that, but they were starting to pack up merchandise, and Justin was more than happy to help label the boxes and document everything in the store’s computer.
We celebrated the summer solstice together at Yellowstone National Park. I was able to get a cabin for the four of us in a rustic area, where we could rest in between hikes and swimming and telling spooky stories. Sometimes Rainbow and Cadence would go out for an extra outdoor adventure, and I would stay in to make sure Justin ate and rested– though it was hard to get him to actually rest when what he really wanted to do was make love. I couldn’t complain though; he let me take care of him most times, and he did sleep a little afterwards.
July was a busy month. We only had a few more weeks before the last of the packing and cleaning had to be done, and we wanted to leave town without owing extra fees or losing our deposits. Both David and Cadence kept their shops closed on Independence Day, the only difference being that Justin still went to work to help with the packing, while I had the day off. David and my landlord invited me to their barbecue, and even though I wasn’t usually interested in them, I went as a token of good will.
I told Justin that I would pick him up around sunset so that we could go to his aunt’s house and celebrate there. When I approached the area where the shops were, I sent a message saying that I was almost there, and he texted back saying that he was heading for the convenience store to pick up some snacks, and that he’d meet me there. That wasn’t too unusual for him, and I turned onto the street where that store was.
Traffic was a bit heavier than normal, what with everyone heading through town to get to a party or a place where they would be able to see the fireworks, so it took me a few extra minutes to get to the convenience store and find a parking space. Usually all I had to do was wait in the car and send Justin a message that I was there, and he’d come out with his little bag and drink and hop in. That day, he didn’t respond to my text that I was waiting outside, so I went into the store to see if he needed any help.
I was in there for several minutes, navigating the crowd and calling him while I walked back and forth to see where he was. He didn’t answer. I didn’t hear his ringtone anywhere in the store– not even when I stood near the bathroom door to listen for it. Justin didn’t turn his ringer off; he always forgot to turn it back on, so I’d helped him set up an automatic do-not-disturb time frame, and if we went to a movie, he simply turned the phone off and let me remind him to turn it back on afterwards.
I rushed back out of the store and drove along the path he would have taken to get to the convenience store; no sign of him. It wasn’t like him to deviate from what he said he was going to do, especially considering how he’d only recently said where he was going. I drove back to Cadence’s shop and jumped out of the car. Neither Cadence’s nor Rainbow’s cars were there, and the store was completely locked down and dark.
Again Justin didn’t answer the phone.
I started walking the path he would have walked, shouting his name and calling his phone.
“Emory!” I heard as I passed one of the alleyways.
That was my grandfather’s voice. I felt cold all of a sudden. The area grew darker. I turned and walked into the alley; it was as dark as the darkest night, starless, moonless. It was also icy and smelled of caverns and ozone.
“Grandfather…?” My eyes took a moment to adjust to that depth of darkness, and before they did, I could smell– even over the reek of garbage and mildew and old standing water– the coppery scent of blood. I rushed forward.
I heard a whimper and a faint exhale, something that tried to be a moan but was too weak. My eyes adjusted, and I nearly leaped back at the sight of my grandfather. His hands and mouth were covered in blood, and it soaked his clothes– clothes that he normally kept pristine, ever the nobleman that he was.
“Grandfather, is that–” My voice trembled as I looked over the body in his arms.
No. It wasn’t Justin. I remembered that face, though; that sour expression, those brown curls of hair. That was one of Justin’s bullies. His neck was wounded, the two tell-tale puncture marks smeared with blood. Even though Grandfather had stopped drinking from him, the wounds hadn’t healed as they normally would have. I knew what that meant: he was dead.
“Grand–” I started to whisper.
“I kept my promise as best I could,” he told me, his voice low and gravelly. He let go of the drained body, and it fell with a wet thud and a squelching sound.
“What happened?” I managed to croak out when I saw the body of one of the other bullies– a body much more destroyed. I looked back up at my grandfather. “Where is Justin?”
He led me over to the corner of the alley, right next to an over-flowing dumpster. Justin laid on the mildewed remains of a box, random bits of trash littering the ground around him. I was on the verge of collapsing; I leaned against the brick wall, trying to remember to breathe.
“Justin…” I gasped. My vision blurred and my stomach felt queasy.
“He is alive,” my grandfather assured me in a weak voice. “Frail, but…”
He saw that I couldn’t move, and he knelt down to take Justin into his arms.
“Little Moon,” I whispered, reaching my hand towards him but too afraid to touch his bruised and bleeding face. “Why…”
“Come with me,” grandfather said.
He glanced towards the main sidewalk, as though worried that someone might pass by. Then he leaped up, first onto the lid of the dumpster, and then onto the narrow metal stairs that led up to the roof of the four-story building. The darkness expanded as he went up, keeping us hidden in shadows. I couldn’t jump like he could, but I could run, and I followed him up to the roof.
“My…” I sobbed when I reached the top, falling to my knees beside him.
Grandfather was kneeling there, gazing down at my precious Justin. He was trying to act stoic, but I knew he was torn, that sorrow filled him.
“I didn’t see how it began,” Grandfather told me, “but I’m certain that they saw him alone and took advantage of the opportunity. I came as soon as I sensed his pain and distress.”
Justin was almost never alone– not in public. We crossed paths with his bullies even less often, and when they were nearby, they took one look at me and ran away. We’d made it so long without any more problems; we were so close to leaving them far, far behind…
“Justin,” I whimpered. “I’m so sorry, baby…”
“I can help him.”
My eyes shot up to my grandfather. I knew my face was a storm of emotions, and I knew he’d said those words from a perspective of caring, but…
“You can’t turn him!” I cried, nearly ready to grab Justin from him.
“I know your feelings on the matter,” he replied. He looked down at him; Justin’s breathing was weak and slow, and he was limp in Grandfather’s arms.
Justin’s clothes were torn and filthy with trash and blood. He was scratched and bruised, and his right hand was swollen. His left eye– I don’t know what they’d done to it, but it was like something from a horror movie. This was worse than the beating he’d gotten at school. This was hateful, vindictive… deadly. He moaned weakly now and then; it was a pained sound, and I was certain that bones had been broken, or at least cracked, and organs had been damaged.
“Emory, that hospital…” Grandfather began.
I shook my head. Hot tears were streaming down my cheeks, and I could barely breathe.
“I don’t know how much they can help him,” he said.
He was right; even if they got him stable, he would still be at risk for infection, and the trauma– after everything else he’d been through–
“I know they got him through the malnutrition,” I said, “but this… I don’t trust them to keep him alive, let alone to ensure that he doesn’t come away with permanent damage…”
“Come with me to Tierney Ríocht,” Grandfather urged me.
“I can’t! I already told you, we can’t turn him. I can’t– I–“
“I know we’re goth, but I can’t deny him any chance of ever feeling the sun again. I can’t take him away from his parents. And even if I went with him, we cannot simply disappear from this world.”
“I know. And I can help him with without turning him.”
I gave him a wide-eyed stare. “Wait, you mean…” I shook my head. “You’re talking about the spring, aren’t you? But it’s dangerous for you to go there!”
“It’s more dangerous for him if we don’t go there.” Grandfather got to his feet and gathered more shadows around us to open the way to his world.
I glanced back towards the alleyway. “Wait, we can’t– Grandfather, the–”
He started walking into the shadows. “I will keep the way open, and keep this area shrouded,” he assured me. “They will be dealt with.”