I woke up to the feeling of Justin’s fingers in my hair; I’d fallen asleep in the recliner, draped over his bed just to get that much closer to him. It wasn’t the best position for my back, but it was worth it to be close to him. I nuzzled into his palm and gazed into his eyes.
“Have you been awake for long?” I asked.
Outside, the sun was rising, though it was dimmed by the clouds and a misty rain.
“Just a few minutes,” he murmured. His fingers slid to the back of my head and he scooted closer to me.
I returned the gesture as I looked over his face. “You look a little better,” I told him. “Not quite as exhausted.” His eyes had seemed sunken and dark before; thank goodness he was somewhere that he’d be encouraged to sleep more.
Justin nodded. “Yeah…” He didn’t say more, and instead gazed at me with a weak smile.
“How do you feel?” I asked him after a while. “Any nausea?”
He shook his head.
“Have you eaten yet? Can you eat?” I sat up a little. “What sounds good to you?”
“Umm…” Justin clung to my hand. His grip was weak, but I knew he was trying.
“What is it, Little Moon?”
“Okay.” But I couldn’t help but grin. “Let me sit you up a little first.”
I fidgeted with the bed controls until he was more upright, and also adjusted his pillows. In his weakened state, it would be hard for him to sit up on his own, and I intended to help as much as I could.
“All right, tell me what sounds good. If they don’t have it here, I’ll go out and get it.”
“Umm… well, maybe some toast.” then he averted his gaze shyly. “…and maybe a little avocado.”
“Oh, you want avocado toast!”
“Not the fancy kind,” he insisted. “And maybe a blueberry waffle…”
“That sounds perfect for you, Little Moon,” I told him, giving him a gentle hug before calling for the nurse.
Jasmine had already gone home, but the morning nurse was just as nice, and twice as bubbly. She was clearly far more used to younger children, because she came in with two plushies to offer Justin. He declined the bears, and after much insistence agreed that he would accept a wolf or a vampire– a bit of a stretch, but it got her to change the subject to food.
“I remember your chart,” she said. “You need foods dense with nutrients and calories. Doctor wants to get your weight up, but not your LDL cholesterol.”
“Okay… that’s the kind in greasy meats, right?” She nodded, and Justin went on. “I don’t think I could stomach those anyway. I threw up the sausage I had yesterday.”
“No bacon or sausage for now then,” the nurse replied. “We don’t want you losing what you eat. Happy bellies make strong, happy boys. So, what do you like?”
I think he was a little overwhelmed by her energy, so I let her know what we’d already discussed, and gave her a couple other ideas of what he enjoyed just in case the hospital kitchen didn’t have avocados. She said she’d order some food for me, too, then disappeared to put everything into the cafeteria program at the nurse’s station. She came back after a while with a narrow cart containing all the tools needed for taking vitals.
“Okay… uhh… Well, I can’t call you kiddo, can I?” She saw Justin grimace and added, “Buddy won’t work for you either, will it? I guess I’ll just have to call you young man– you know, since you’re almost a man, but you’re still a little young.”
Justin smirked, we shared incredulous looks.
“She is trying,” I pointed out.
“More than trying,” she said. “I found something I think you’ll like, and something else you might not like. I have to do the thing you don’t like, but you can have the other thing if you’re brave about it, okay?”
Justin eyed the vitals cart warily. She brought it closer and showed him the pulse-oximeter. “I know you’ve seen this thing before. Just stick your finger in it and I won’t have to get the kind we tape onto your toe.”
“Yeah… the less wires, the better,” he said, and offered his finger.
“You’re lucky,” she said as she wiped her temporal thermometer with an alcohol pad. “Nurses used to have to take kids’ temperatures in their bottom. Now I don’t even have to poke the underside of your tongue; I just have to wave this magic wand and I know you don’t have a fever.”
She put the thermometer down, scribbled down some numbers, and picked up the blood pressure cuff. “Yeah, now for the hard part,” she said when she saw his expression. “We have to watch your blood pressure carefully, though, so we can give you the right treatments. But lucky you, I found this!”
She reach down to the lower basket on the cart and picked up a round, squat plushie. Well, it looked more like a gumdrop-shaped pillow. The top part of it looked like a gray tabby cat, and the rest was a cartoonish vampire, much like the stereotypical costumes seen at Halloween.
“This little guy was way in the back of the toy closet,” she told him. “He’s leftover from last fall. I don’t know if it’s your style, but the closest thing we have to a wolf is a husky.”
Justin eyed the plush for a long moment before his face broke out into a grin. “It’s a Squishmallow!”
“It sure is,” the nurse agreed, seeming relieved that he liked it. “It’s all yours if I get to take your blood pressure.”
He knew he had no choice but to give in. She was making it seem like it was his choice, but she really did need to get his vitals, and he knew as well as I did that she would get his mother involved if she had to. He’d never liked the way the cuff squeezed his arm, and it probably didn’t help that his readings weren’t all that accurate if he was always tense for them.
With a little comforting from me and the plushie to squeeze, Justin was able to submit to the blood pressure check. As I’d predicted, it was a little low. Once he got back into eating and stopped everything that was upsetting his stomach, I was sure his blood supply would improve, and so would his blood pressure.
Breakfast arrived not long after that. Justin got everything he wanted, and the nurse reminded him not to overeat; it was okay not to clear his plate, because the most important thing was that he ate good food and kept it down. The doctors wanted to remove stress factors and comfort him so that he could get better. I had to remind Justin to slow down a couple times as he devoured the avocado toast and started in on the waffle.
“Take it easy with the syrup, Little Moon. All that sugar is going to make your heart race.”
“I’m hungry,” he insisted.
“You were starving,” I corrected him, “so don’t overdo it. Refeeding takes time, remember?”
Justin grumbled, but conceded and paid better attention to how his body reacted. Once he was full, the nurse had him relax a while so that he could digest and avoid anything that could make him throw up.
“How are you feeling?” I asked as he watched me eat my scrambled eggs. After getting sick on them the day before, he wasn’t ready to try them again, even if they were better prepared.
“Umm… a little better. Kinda warm instead of achy.”
“That’s a good sign.” I gave him a warm smile. “If you keep doing well, they’ll let you go home in no time.”
“Maybe,” Justin said with a shrug. “But yesterday, while you weren’t here, they said a bunch of different doctors were going to see me today.”
“That makes sense, Little Moon. You were unconscious for hours, and you didn’t even realize you’d been throwing up at night. They probably have a lot that they want to check on.”
Once Justin felt a little less stuffed from eating, the nurse came in to see how well he could sit up on his own– and if he was strong enough to stand. He barely managed to push himself up, and standing worked out for maybe five seconds before I had to catch him and lay him back down.
“I don’t know how you managed to push yourself to do as much as you did before you fainted,” I told him.
“Well… I guess Ihad to,” Justin replied a little sheepishly.
“You are completely drained from it, too, young man,” the nurse said as she moved on to checking his IV bags. “The good news is that now you don’t have to force yourself to do anything that’s beyond your limits. We’re going to help you learn when to wind down so you don’t overextend yourself, and the doctors are going to make sure your family is on board with respecting your limits and needs.”
Justin nodded. He seemed a little uncertain about having his mother and aunt being told what to do, especially when it meant listening to him more, but in my view, it was vital that they did exactly that. I had little doubt that things would work in Justin’s favor; his mother was incredibly worried about him and willing to do whatever he needed, and she’d said that his aunt was sorry for pushing him so hard and not realizing that he wasn’t well.
Ms. Anderson got to the hospital later in the morning. She’d been able to work out her schedule with her manager to where she’d start work earlier and finish at a time that wouldn’t cause her to lose too many hours. After that, I could go to work and return in the evening. I had no problem being the one to keep Justin company overnight; his mother seemed very relieved to hear that.
We met another of the hospital’s pediatricians that morning. Dr. Hiro was cheerful and knowledgeable, and he seemed ready to tackle everything Justin had going on.
“All right, Justin, I’ve got good news and bad news,” he said with a grin, “and then more good news.”
Justin looked up at him with wide eyes.
“But I’m not going to tell you which is which; I know you’re smart enough to figure it out.”
Justin raised a brow and looked over at me. I smirked back and gave him a look that said, ‘just play along.’
“First, your blood test results,” Dr. Hiro began. “No infections of any kind; no parasites, no other indicators of disease. All of our concerns with your blood work– iron, vitamins, cell count– are rooted in your malnutrition, and we can treat that. We can get you meal plans and IV supplements.”
“That’s fantastic,” I said, giving Justin a comforting squeeze.
“As part of our plan, we need to place a central line,” the doctor went on. “It will get a lot of nutrients into you a lot faster. We’re developing the formula for your parenteral supplement.”
“What’s a central line?” Justin asked nervously. “I mean, what does it go through the center of?”
Dr. Hiro had come prepared with pictures and pamphlets to help explain that. It was basically a more intensive IV line, which would be placed in one of the major veins near his clavicle. Justin was clearly terrified by the thought of large needles and tubes, even with local anesthetic, but after some discussion, the doctor said that he could administer a sedative through the IV currently in place. Ms. Anderson signed the paperwork, and I agreed to stay until the vascular specialist came in.
“Once the central line is in place,” Dr. Hiro went on, “we can remove the IV from your arm. Now for some concerns that aren’t related to your blood work. There will be some specialists coming by throughout the day to check in on you.”
“What sort of specialists?” Ms. Anderson asked.
“Well, in order to understand how he got to this point– to where he’s more or less starving– we have to check a few things. A gastroenterologist will help make sure he’s able to digest food and absorb nutrients, and a psychiatrist will evaluate–“
“You mean for depression?” Justin asked. He’d tensed up at the mention of that.
“It’s a possibility,” the doctor admitted. “You’ve been through a lot these past couple months, so the safest route would be to make sure there are no lasting effects, and that you haven’t been living with something long-term that never got diagnosed or treated.”
Dr. Hiro read the worry and apprehension on his face and added. “This isn’t a guarantee that you will have to take medication, Justin. Malnutrition also causes symptoms related to depression– especially with a lack of vitamin D and iron. Our goal is to offer treatments that don’t rely on medication unless it’s the only recourse. That means if you can feel better with talk therapy and life counseling, that’s what we’ll go with.”
Justin nodded weakly, but still looked worried.
“We want you to be healthy in all ways when you go home,” the doctor assured him. “If we get you well-fed and your blood work improves, you don’t want to go home and go back to throwing up or anything else.”
After a little more discussion, Justin and his mother understood the plan of action, and Dr. Hiro left the room to update his chart. A little while later, a couple nurses and a doctor arrived to begin the procedure for the central line. As soon as he saw that they were dressed in surgical-type coverings he started to panic; he was breathing harder, and his grip on my hand tightened as she shook his head.
“You’re going to be okay, Little Moon,” I assured him. “I’m right here with you.”
Justin ended up hiding his face in my chest as I held him, and he held his right arm out for the nurse to push the sedative through his IV.
“I… it’s… nooo,” he groaned as the nurse had him lie back. “Big… machines…”
“That’s just the ultrasound, little man.” the nurse assured him. “It’s going to help the doctor find the vein and see what direction it goes. If you hold as still as possible, he’ll only need to do it once.”
One of the nurses had me put on a mask and surgical cap and gown; she’d wanted us to leave the room, but Justin nearly had a meltdown when she mentioned that. I was able to stay, but Ms. Anderson stepped out into the hall. Justin’s trembling eased a little as the sedative started to kick in.
“I know you’re scared,” I whispered, wiping the tears away from his cheeks, “but I’m here with you, Little Moon. You’re not alone in this.”
“Blackthorne…” he whispered. His body relaxed more, and his eyes drooped.
I glanced over at the nurses, who were preparing the sterile items in the central line kit, then back to Justin. “You’re such a brave little prince.”
“Averel,” he murmured, hardly audible.
“Oh, you remember the story I told you about the lonely vampire?” It had been ages since I’d last told him that story.
“Tell me…” he whispered.
I gave him a fond smile. “Okay, sweet prince, I’ll tell you it again.” It was sure to distract him from what the nurses were doing, but I knew better than to mention that to him. “This is the story as my grand father told me. Long ago, on a mountain in a land far away, there stood a castle. It rose up over all the mountain peaks. It could be seen from the forests where the ravens lived, the caves where the bats roosted, and the fields where the roses grew. The man who lived in the castle had many servants and attendants, and even guards who protected him, but he still felt very alone. He never got any visitors from the villages at the base of the mountain, for they slept when he was awake, and he slept while they went about their days. He didn’t know why, but he’d been born in the shadows, and he couldn’t venture into the daylight.
“This lonely man was Averel, one of only four vampires in the realm. The others rarely visited him, and when they did, they often argued. As the years went on, his heart grew heavy, and he rarely left his room. Sometimes he didn’t even light a candle to read by. One night, he noticed a shadow darker than any he’d ever seen before, and he walked into it to see why it was so different. Imagine his surprise when he came out the other side into an entirely different world!
“Averel wandered around this new world during the night, and found safe places to sleep during the day. Eventually, he met a woman, and they visited one another every night until they fell in love. He found work that he could do at night, and he kept secret what he really was. They started a family together, and his surname was passed down through the generations. He would travel back to his castle sometimes, journeying through the shadows, and when his first wife passed on, he mourned her for a long time before finding another part of the world to visit, and new people who didn’t know him.
“For centuries, Averel kept his secrets and passed his name on to more and more children. He loved each and every one of them, and even as the generations passed, he looked after his descendants and made sure they lived in safety and with honor.”
“Is he… still… lonely…?” Justin murmured. He was half asleep, and had hardly reacted to the doctor beginning the procedure.
“Hardly at all,” I told him, caressing his arm as we talked. “He has a vast family now, and even a few friends. Some days it feels lonely to keep the secret that he’s a vampire, but he knows there are people who love him. Sometimes, if things go just right, one of his descendants will have special abilities, and might even embrace the idea of vampires.”
“And then…” he paused to yawn a little, “they can go to his world.”
I smiled and kissed his fingers. “Yes, Little Moon, sometimes they do. But Averel never forgets how special it is to be loved, and how important it is to let people know you love them.”
Justin smiled contentedly and let his eyes close. I let him rest and watched the nurse work, passing the tube down the guide wire and into his vein, glad that he wasn’t watching. After a few more minutes, they had everything in place and bandaged, and Justin went on dozing even while they switched his saline and other nutrients to the central line and removed the IV.
Once they left, I watched him sleeping quietly. “My sweet, precious Little Moon…” I whispered, caressing his cheek. “How could anyone not love you?”
Ms. Anderson came back in after several more minutes, looking frustrated. She gave me a somewhat-forced smile. “Thank you, Emory,” she said as she went to his side. She sounded relieved. “Look at him, sleeping like an angel. He really doesn’t deserve to suffer like this.”
“Nobody does,” I agreed as I got up from the chair. “But he has us to help him get through it.”
I rubbed Justin’s cheeks and ran my fingers through his hair until he roused a little. “Hey, I have to go to work for a little while,” I told him. “Your mom is right here with you, okay?”
He nodded and took my hands, locking his eyes with mine. “I love you, Blackthorne,” he murmured.
His words made me smile, and I bent down to kiss his forehead. “Have sweeter words ever been said? I’ll be back in the evening, Little Moon, and you can tell me about all the doctors you’ve met.”
“Okay,” he whispered.
I could feel his hesitation in letting me go. Truth be told, he could have begged me to stay, and I would have had a hard time not giving in to him. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that, and I was soon out of his room and the hospital.
It took me a few minutes of sitting alone in my car before I could regain my composure. Even though I knew he could recover from this– from the depression and malnutrition and bullying– I couldn’t help but weep for him. The truth of the matter was, he wouldn’t recover if I told him we couldn’t be more than friends, let alone if I abandoned him in Cody and went on to Sacramento alone. And neither would I. The deeper truth was that I was falling in love with him in a way that I’d never loved anyone else before.
On my way back to the hospital, I noticed how windy it was. There were storm clouds rolling in, and the night was a lot darker. I hoped that if it did storm, it wouldn’t keep Justin up. I parked and walked back into the hospital, where it was mostly quiet and very few people were around. I followed the signage as I made my way back to the pediatric ward, eventually stepping off an elevator into a dim hallway; it seemed that they turned the lights down at night in order to save power and create a sleepy environment.
After a short walk, the hallway got even darker, and I came to a sort of crossroads. All the directions I could go in seemed pretty dark, but which one led to Justin’s room? I carried on straight ahead.
“If they were going to black out this area, they could have at least closed the doors or put up barriers,” I muttered to myself.
Almost as if in reply, the doors into that hallways shut. Why didn’t the hospital check for people before doing that? I sighed and continued on.
“Nurse Jasmine?” I paused and listened more closely. I swear I’d heard a female voice whisper my name.
I shook my head and was about to move along when I noticed a form moving across my periphery, as though from one room to another. But it was only three feet or so tall. Was there a kid lost in this hall?
“Ms. Anderson? Hey, are you–”
The door to one of the small side rooms up ahead opened with a whoosh, and I closed the distance to peer inside. It was some sort of exam room, fairly similar to most pediatric facilities, complete with a painting of teddy bears. The difference was, the people in there weren’t children.
“Oh, pretty Emory,” a voice said. Its owner was a woman in a gown of black velvet and green lace, her bodice tight and revealing. She wore a choker of black silk with an emerald skull and matching earrings, and her ebony hair was piled high on her head with intricate braids and buns. Her skin was pale, her lips a deep scarlet.
She sat on the exam table. Beside her stood the horned imp I’d noticed a moment ago; I was relieved that there wasn’t a lost child wandering around, but I had to get her and the imp to leave immediately.
“You’re not welcome here,” I told her.
“Is that any way to talk to a princess?” she replied with a pout.
I narrowed my eyes at her. “You’re not a princess. Go back to your master and tell him to stop bothering me.”
“I could be your princess, though,” she said. “We’d make such beautiful children together.”
“I don’t want children,” I snapped, “least of all with you.”
More pouting. “You’re too pretty to be so mean.”
“Did you really come here just to proposition me?”
“I only wanted to offer to unite our bloodlines,” she simpered.
“Never,” I growled, making it clear that my tone was final.
“You would be so much more powerful if you sired heirs with me.”
“You and I both know that’s a lie, Lisbet.”
“Your grandfather wants you to believe that, but until you’ve had me, you’ll never know.”
“I prefer it that way. Now get back to your home before I call upon my grandfather. He will not hesitate to rip your throat out for trespassing here.” I glared at her, determined to do whatever it took to ensure she left.
“I had your father, you know,” she told me in a sultry tone. “He understood how wonderful it would have been for Thorne and Draco to unite.”
I was infinitely glad that he’d never been successful in that, either. My mother deserved better than him giving in to Lisbet’s temptations, and an attempt to mix the bloodlines wasn’t worth the risks involved. The shadows grew thick around me, and I didn’t take my eyes off of her.
“You can’t stop staring at me, can you, Emory Thorne?”
“I’m only watching to make sure you leave.”
There was a thunk in the hallway, and then the sound of nails on tile– or was it claws? Lisbet leaned forward as though curious as to what was out there.
“Such wild energy you have, Emory,” Listbet noted, still trying to sound suggestive. “Why not use it on me rather than risk damaging this place of medicine?”
“The rights of the Thorne bloodline have been set out by a pact of blood,” I recited; ancient words that my grandfather had made me memorize. “Just as the rights of the Draco, the Raven, and the Lyon bloodlines have been written.”
“Again with the pact?” she sighed. the imp beside her was starting to look worried.
“To trespass upon that which belongs to another bloodline is to forfeit life and liberty and honor, and the punishment for it may be as great as tenfold.”
“Ridiculous,” she groaned. Still, she got down from her perch and started moving towards a pitch black corner. “Do be careful, young Thorne; in your virility, you just might summon more than you intended.”
“Leave,” I commanded, this time more forcefully.
A moment later, she and the imp were gone. The shadows lightened just a little, and I realized that I would have to release the ones I had called on my own before the halls could go back to the soothing dimness I’d seen earlier. I listened carefully to make sure nothing else lingered because of the shadowy encounter, then hurried straight to Justin’s room.
Nurse Jasmine was there, checking his IV bags one last time before heading back out to the nurse’s station. She’d already brought him a miniature dental care kit. Justin didn’t care too much that the toothbrush in it was more juvenile; what really mattered was getting the horrible taste out of his mouth. He’d taken some medicine as well, which seemed to be helping him already. Ms. Anderson stayed just a little longer to chat, then left to go home and get some sleep.
Once it was just me and Justin in the room together, I sat on the bed and he curled up in my lap. I pulled the dinosaur blanket over him and let him lie on my chest until he fell asleep to the song I hummed for him. I was again tempted to lie down alongside him, but I didn’t want to tangle myself in his IV. Once he was deeply enough asleep, I laid him down and slid out of the bed.
It seemed that every time I thought that being with Justin would be as simple as loving him and being there for him, something else happened to remind me that I wasn’t like everyone else. I was human, but my grandfather wasn’t– not entirely. He was many things that I wasn’t, but the few things we had in common were positive traits, and he really did care about his family. The this was, he couldn’t deny his nature or his position, so the ways in which he showed he cared were different.
I stared out of the hospital room window as I thought. Grandfather had warned be about Lisbet ages ago. Her master had ideas of his own– ones that went against the blood pact and that would plunge all four bloodlines into chaos. We weren’t certain whether that was why my father had changed to become so cruel, but we couldn’t rule it out as a possibility. Not only did I have no interest in her, but she was a threat to everyone I loved.
“He is so delicate.”
I turned, forcing down a gasp. There was my grandfather, long white hair, regal clothing and noble features, leaning over Justin’s bed and watching him sleep. He glanced at me, unmoved by my wide-eyed expression.
“I can see why you are so protective of him.”
“Don’t wake him up,” I hissed.
He stood up straight and gave me the faintest of smiles. “That’s just how your mother said it when you were a baby and I came to visit. I didn’t ever wake you, though.”
“He’s not a baby,” I snapped.
“I would hope not, knowing the kind of love he feels for you. You should be careful with your own voice, though.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Why did you come to the hospital?”
Grandfather beckoned me deeper into the shadows of the corner. I could feel the cold there, and I could smell the other-worldly scent of the shadow portals. “Did I ever tell you that it’s harder for sound to travel through the shadows? You’ll still need to keep your voice down, but this should be better for you and him.”
I peered out beyond the shadows; I could still see Justin asleep in the hospital bed, but his back was to us, and I hoped he wouldn’t wake up and think that he was alone. “Are you going to answer my question?”
“At first, I was going to come because I felt how weak his life-force had become,” Grandfather told me, “but that was going to be later in the night. I came now because of what I sensed in the shadows.”
“I should have warned you sooner about how dangerous it is to call the shadows here.”
“In the hospital?” I asked. “Or anywhere in Cody?”
Grandfather sighed. “This is why I wanted you to live with me, at least for a few years.”
“I can’t just disappear off the face of the Earth,” I told him. “Maybe one of your offspring could have gotten away with that a century ago, but not with modern technology.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say it’s so impossible. I’ve heard of a few individuals who went missing and then returned safely.”
“That’s just it: I don’t want to be missing. I don’t want to be one of those weird stories. Besides, Justin needs me,” I added. “So let’s focus on what I can do, which is to let you visit from time to time and teach me what you can.”
He gave me a knowing smile. “From anyone else but you Emory, that headstrong approach would invoke my wrath.”
“I’m that special to you, huh?”
“I cannot deny it,” he replied. “Now, as for hospitals… most people regard them as places of healing. For me, however, they are hubs of life and death. The lives here are very delicate, Emory, and death attracts monsters.”
“And monsters cause more death,” I muttered.
He nodded. “I took you to The Crypt because it was safe. Even places with a history as rich as Harvard’s are safer than the hospital when it comes to what lurks in the shadows.”
I nodded, and I was certain that he’d caught on to my nervousness.
“I know why you were gathering so much darkness,” he added, speaking much more softly. “I shall send an envoy to Lord Draco tomorrow to remind him that he is responsible for ensuring that nobody from his bloodline comes anywhere near North America.”
“Would he even care?”
“He respects the blood pact,” Grandfather said. “He may be curious about would would happen if the bloodlines mix, but he knows what lines to not cross.”
“Heh… okay. I have to admit, I’m surprised that you didn’t take her out as soon as you knew it was Lisbet.”
His expression grew dark. “Between keeping the peace– and our secrets– and wanting to see what you would do, I decided that she would have this one warning. Her master will make it clear to her that if she comes near any of us ever again, her life will be forfeit.”
“Grandfather… I don’t know if I can be the one to–“
“You would,” he insisted, “for your beloved prince.”
The very thought of Lisbet threatening Justin had my heart racing. “You’re right,” I gritted out. I had to stop thinking about what I would do to her, so I changed the subject. “Justin is practically starving.”
“I know,” he said. “He was a little stronger when he was with you the other day, but now…”
“He declined so rapidly…”
“He can recover from this,” Grandfather assured me, “but he needs you.”
I wiped my hands over my face and sighed. “I can help him, but he’s likely to have problems again if I’m not around. But with me… I don’t want him to have to worry about monsters or…” I shook my head. “Maybe it was a mistake to let him get so attached to me.”
“You’ve had years of friendship with him; most of them were before I began to tell you the truth about myself. He wouldn’t give up your love and friendship in exchange for safety, Emory. Truth be told, he probably feels safest of all when he’s with you.”
“Only because he doesn’t know our secrets.”
“I have a different perspective for you,” he said, getting up to gaze at Justin’s sleeping form again. “If you break his heart, it won’t matter to him why you push him away; his life may as well end in that moment. If you stay with him, he will be well-guarded.”
“By you?” I asked, wanting to pull him away from Justin.
“Yes…” he breathed. “But also by you, and by all of my bloodline, whether or not you accept my offer.”
“If I stayed with you,” I reminded him, “it would mean leaving Justin.”
“It doesn’t have to,” he whispered. He reached down to brush Justin’s hair out of his face. “Your beloved is always welcome with us. Not like this, though… not while he is starved. I’m sure you can imagine what would happen.”
“You’re not turning him.” I wanted to shout, to growl, to demand– something to let him know that my decision was final. “And you will not take so much as a sip from him.”
“I would never do that, Emory,” Grandfather replied, just as calm as always. “Even if he gave me his consent, he has nothing with which to feed me. I promise you, I have never even considered the possibility.”
I watched him for long moments as he stayed silent, gazing down at Justin, the rise and fall of his breathing, the tiny movements he made in his sleep.
“He’s probably dreaming about you,” he eventually whispered. He finally pulled his gaze back to me.
I nodded and stepped forward. “Maybe…”
Grandfather laid his hand on mine. “He’s so small… Only a year younger than you, but…” He pursed his lips worriedly. “To think that this is what happened because his mother was so unprepared…”
“I know,” he whispered. “I know, you know… She did what she could. Listen to me: he got this far in life because of you, Emory. He’s safest with you. The warmth and friendship you’ve given him are his greatest treasures.”
“You want me to stay with him,” I noted.
“I want you to not deny your place in his heart if you love him. Don’t worry about anything else but love.”
“Fancy talk for your kind,” I pointed out.
He gave me a long, serious look, then turned back towards the shadows. “It’s because I love you that you have the freedom to choose your own path, no matter how much I want you by my side. Do not doubt that I love my other children as well.”
“Are you going back to your newborn?” I asked him.
He gave me a warm, fond smile before disappearing into the shadows. It was good to see this sentimental side of him. He used to be so stoic that he seemed cold and uncaring. I knew he’d had to be, but more often than not, it made it difficult for me to get close to him. But now… Now he was there for me, even if he couldn’t be the one to heal my beloved Little Moon.
The hours crawled by. After M. Anderson and I consented to blood draws, Julia came by to check on the situation, and I promised to not leave Justin’s side while they went to get some food. A nurse in pink scrubs embroidered with kittens came by with some water and snacks for me. After she checked his IV, she brought in a couple blankets.
“Okay, I know he’s seventeen, but he should still have something besides those white hospital sheets,” she said in a friendly voice. I thought maybe she hadn’t been a nurse for very long, she looked so young. “So, race cars or dinosaurs? Or should I go back to the closet and get the Pokémon one?”
I smirked and accepted the dinosaur blanket. “He likes dragons,” I said as I draped it over him, “so this will have to do.”
Then she pulled some black socks with thick grip-pads on the soles from her pocket. “I brought some socks for his cold little feet,” she added. “We’ll keep him warm until his metabolism can get back to work and he puts on a little weight.”
“Thank you,” I told her, my voice breaking.
“Any time,” she said. “Okay, you have the call button, water– do you need a blanket? No, I didn’t think so. Just hit the button and Ask for Nurse Jasmine– that’s me– if he wakes up or you need anything.”
I dimmed the lights a little when she left, and gently closed the door. The sun was setting outside. I’d already declined food– strange as that felt, knowing how that had gone for Justin. But I would be eating later, when I knew he was a little more stable.
Once I had the socks on his feet and the blanket wrapped around him just right, I sat back down beside Justin’s bed and took his hand. It felt so limp and cold; he he been cold the night before? I kicked myself mentally for not noticing, then made sure his other one was tucked in so it could stay warm. I wanted to slide into bed next to him and give him my body heat, but I knew that wouldn’t go over well with the hospital staff, so I got as close as I could and justed watch him sleep.
I think I’d dozed off at some point, because when I felt something fluttering over my cheek and realized my eyes were closed, it was dark outside. Once my vision cleared, I noticed a pair of beautiful brown eyes peering up at me.
“Hey,” I whispered. “You have no idea how glad I am to see you look at me.”
Justin’s expression became a little worried. “You’re off work already?” His voice was weak and hoarse. “Damn, I’m so tired… I think I had a nightmare, and that kept me from really resting…”
I ran my fingers over his temple and through his hair; he liked having his head rubbed and his ears caressed, as long as it was by someone he cared about. I didn’t think he knew where he was yet, and I intended to let him know gently. We inched closer together, until we were forehead to forehead.
“Tell me about your dream, Little Moon.”
He shivered a little. “I had to lie down after breakfast… my stomach hurt so bad. I fell asleep and dreamed about being sick. There are some parts I can’t remember, but later I was doing the dishes, and no matter how many I did, they just kept coming, and no matter how much I scrubbed, they wouldn’t get clean. Then my head started to hurt… I think some of the dishes broke…”
It sounded like he thought what had happened was all just a bad dream.
“Does your head feel better now?”
He nodded meekly. “My throat hurts, though.”
I massaged the back of his head and kept him close to me. He stretched his arm out to try holding me, too, but stopped suddenly.
“Hey, what– what am I stuck on?”
I rubbed his arm to soothe him. “It’s okay,” I whispered. I’m here with you.”
“Blackthorne, what’s going on?” he asked in a shaky voice. Then he hissed. “Dammit, why does my hand hurt so bad?”
“I’ll tell you, Little Moon. Just try not to panic, okay?”
He froze and looked up at me.
“Sssssshhh… You’re safe. I think some of your dream wasn’t actually a dream, Little Moon. Your aunt found you on the kitchen floor and had to call nine-one-one.”
I could feel his terror as his breathing increased. “No…” he whispered.
“It’s okay, baby,” I assured him, holding him closer. “You’re going to be okay. Just breathe. Hold me and breathe.”
He squirmed to look around the room. “No,” he whimpered. “Take me home, Blackthorne. Take m– ow!”
I held him tighter, trying to keep him from tugging on his IV. “Be careful, Little Moon. They had to give you medicine while you were asleep. If you pull it out, they’re just going to place another one. Let’s just keep the one you have, okay?”
Justin turned to look at his arm. He was shaking terribly, and tears streak down his face. He saw the IV, and traced the tubing up to the sacs hanging near his bed, then gave me a sorrowful look. “Why…?” he asked in a tiny voice.
“You fainted, Little Moon,” I told him still holding and caressing him. “The doctors and nurses have spent all day trying to find out why.”
“I’m okay now,” he said. “Please take me home.”
“I can’t, baby.”
“Yes, you can. They’ll listen to you. They’ll help me take this out of my arm and– oh, shit!”
“Stop squirming, Little Moon. You might pass out again.”
“Umm… Blackthorne… why did they…”
I realized that he was referring to the catheter they’d placed hours ago. “You were unconscious for a long time,” I told him. “They’ll take it out when you’re strong enough to walk to the bathroom.”
“I’m fine,” he insisted. “I’ll show you.”
I watched him try to sit up on his own, only to lean on me to rest before trying again. I wrapped my arms back around him, and he laid his head on my chest and sobbed.
“We’ll take care of you, Little moon,” I whispered as I rocked him. “We’re going to help you get strong again.”
“Not here,” he murmured. “I’ll try again with you… I’ll eat for you. I’ll sleep and then… then…”
“Sssssshh… Don’t get yourself worked up, my sweet Little Moon. I can’t help you all by myself, baby. You have to let the doctors and nurses help you, too.”
His fingers clawed into my shirt, and he sobbed into my chest. I rocked him slowly until his tension started to fade.
“Why does crying hurt, too? And my hand feels like it split open.”
“You were cut on one of the broken dishes when you fell,” I told him. “Little Moon, I met a very nice nurse earlier. Let me call her in and we’ll see what you’re allowed to have okay? Just don’t panic again.”
“What… Why can’t I…” He sighed and rested his body against mine.
When he was a little more relaxed, I pressed the nurse button.
“Nurse’s station,” a voice came through the tiny speaker.
“Nurse Jasmine? Sorry to bother you, but could we get some extra pillows?” It was a little bit of a dumb request, but some part of me said that I should get the nurse to come in alone so as not to overwhelm Justin.
There was a brief confirmation over the speaker, and within a few minutes, a soft knock came to the door and Nurse Jasmine entered. I placed my finger over my lips to ask her to stay quiet.
“Hello… Sorry for not saying anything over the intercom,” I told her. “He just woke up and he’s feeling nervous.”
“Oh, that’s great news.” She gave Justin a gentle smile. “Hi, honey, I’m Nurse Jasmine. You’re at West Park Hospital, okay? Can I give you these pillows and check on how you’re feeling?”
Justin leaned closer against me as she approached. I accepted the pillow from her and arranged them behind him while she checked on his IV bags. She noticed him watching and smiled again.
“This one is just saline,” she said, “and then you’ve got a whole bunch of vitamins here.”
“Are they almost done?” he asked timidly. “Can the IV come out soon?”
“Well, I don’t know, honey. The doctor might need to give you more medicine and nutrients. It doesn’t hurt, does it?”
He shook his head, though he seemed reluctant to admit it. “I just don’t like how it feels. And I can’t move very much.”
They talked a little about the IV and the other things that had happened while he was asleep. Once that was out of the way, she asked him, “How does your throat feel? Do you think you can drink anything? Maybe some orange juice?”
He made a concerned face and shook his head. “No way… that would sting going down. My throat really hurts.”
With a little more discussion, she got him to drink some water, and then a little bit of milk. She couldn’t give him anything acidic or bubbly, but the milk seemed to help a little. He declined crackers because they were dry and crumbly, and he could only manage a few bites of applesauce. She came back with some soft cheese, white bread, and a little packet of peanut butter. He didn’t finish all of it off, but what he did get into his stomach seemed to help.
“That’s enough for now,” she said. “If you eat too much, you might throw up again.”
“Again?” he croaked before taking another sip of water.
“You don’t remember throwing up earlier today? Or maybe yesterday?”
“I…” He rubbed his temples. “I don’t know. I’ve been really tired lately, and I have weird dreams all the time.”
“Do you get a tummy-ache after meals?” she asked him, keeping her tome gentle.
“I guess… sometimes.”
“That’s okay,” she said, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. “I’m not here to ask you too many questions right now; we’ll let the doctor do all that work.”
“Okay, speaking of doctors,” I said, “is there anyone else besides Doctor Klein? We just really needs someone open-minded and compassionate.”
“Well, he went home a few hours ago. Doctor Smith is on for the night, and I’ll ask her if he can have a little something for the pain. I think Klein is off for a couple days, so I’ll check on who she assigned to the day shift for you.”
“I want to go home,” Justin whimpered.
“We’ll get you there, honey. Let Dr. Smith come talk to you a little about what the plan its. Did you call your mom yet? I bet she’ll be excited that you’re awake.”
Justin shook his head, then winced, immediately regretting the movement.
Nurse Jasmine gave us some privacy so I could make the phone call. Justin snuggled against me and let me put the phone on video mode, and when his mother saw him looking back at her, she just about exploded with joy. She could barely talk to get out a few basic questions, and ended up just saying that she’d be right there. True to her word, she was in Justin’s room in hardly twenty minutes. I gave her space so that she could embrace him and cry tears of joy that he was all right– at least, all right enough that he could wake up. I think she’d been terrified that he was going to be asleep for a lot longer and possibly end up in the ICU.
Once they’d had enough time for greetings and hugs, and their emotions settled down a little, Dr. Smith came in to Talk to Justin and his mother.
“Well, it certainly is good to see you awake young man,” she said once she’d introduced herself and made sure everyone had a place to sit. She seemed very compassionate and motherly. “I was worried you were going to sleep right through my shift and I wouldn’t be able to meet you. How are you feeling, dear?”
“Pretty tired,” he admitted. “My head hurts, my arm hurts, and my hand hurts,” he added, showing her the stitches in his palm. “And my…” He decided to stop before he said anything too personal.
“I thought you might be feeling that way, honey. Do you know why you’re in the hospital?”
“Kind of,” he said with a shrug. “They said I fainted, but I thought I laid down and went to sleep– in my bed, you know?”
“He said he dreamed about getting back up,” I added, “but obviously that part wasn’t a dream.”
“You haven’t been feeling well for a while, have you, honey? Are you having a hard time eating? Does it hurt to eat?”
“Ummm… No,” he said. “I mean… a lot of food just doesn’t taste that good. And sometimes afterwards my stomach really hurts.”
“I see,” the doctor said. “Is it bad enough that you have to throw up sometimes?”
Justin shrugged again. “I’m not really supposed to waste food, so if I don’t feel good, I just try to drink water. If I’m allowed to, I’ll just lay down and go to sleep.”
“Okay, dear. You’ve done a good job answering my question so far. I have some more for you, okay? I know you just woke up, and it seems like everybody’s asking you every question in the world, but can you keep answering my questions honestly? It’ll help me get you better if I have the right answers.”
He gave her a worried look, then nodded. “Okay,” he croaked.
“Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night to go throw up? Or maybe dream about doing that?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “I don’t usually remember my dreams. Maybe? Sometimes my dreams get really weird, and they keep waking me up.”
“That’s okay, sweetie. No wonder you’re so tired. Well, Justin, the ER doctors and Dr. Klein looked in your throat, and it looks pretty red and swollen, as though a lot of stomach acid had been through it. There’s a good chance that you did throw up in the middle of the night and don’t even remember it.”
“But we never saw throw-up anywhere,” his mother said. “His blankets are clean, nothing in this trash can…”
Dr. Smith thought for a moment, then asked, “Is he usually pretty neat and tidy at home? Does he help clean up and keep the house looking nice?” When Ms. Anderson nodded, the doctor went on. “What I think is that in his subconscious, he knows he shouldn’t make a mess, so somehow he makes it to the bathroom when he needs to throw up, and then he goes back to bed once his stomach settles.”
Ms. Anderson looked ready to cry as she looked between the doctor and her son. “Oh my sweet baby,” she said, “you– you did all that just to not make a mess?”
His blank stare told her that he really didn’t remember doing that.
“But what is subconscious didn’t make him do was drink some water or milk to help rinse or neutralize the stomach acid, so now his throat is inflamed. That also means he also probably didn’t brush his teeth afterwards. We’re going to get him some gentle mouthwash and a fresh toothbrush so he can take care of that and reduce the risk to his tooth enamel. I’ll get some medicine to help soothe his throat and reduce the pain. How is he about taking liquid medicine?”
“He’s good,” Ms. Anderson told the doctor. “He’s great, actually. He’ll take whatever you need him to take. It’s just needles and big tests that scare him.”
Ms. Anderson went on to explain why. Back when Justin was two years old, he’d been hospitalized for a few weeks. He’d had an IV, but it repeatedly needed to be replaced because he kept pulling it out. Sometimes it was an accident, and sometimes he hated the thing so badly that he ripped it out. At first they didn’t know what he was sick with, so they ran test after test trying to figure it out. The scanners were so big and loud that he was terrified, and there were so many tests that it got to the point where he thought it would never end.
He didn’t like that the doctors had to try so many different treatment plans. Even if the treatment was supposed to be gentle, when Justin saw another doctor or nurse, he feared the worst and struggled and screamed, but all that crying just ended up making his head hurt– not that two-year-old Justin understood that. They eventually found out that it was pneumonia– some uncommon variety– and he got the treatment he needed so they could let him go home.
These days, Justin knew logically that the doctors were there to help him, and he’d had a lot of experiences that were calm and positive, and where he’d gotten the help he needed. Still, that early experience was so ingrained in him that anything more than a regular doctor’s office or pharmacy really set him off. It even took a lot of soothing and coaxing for him to get his regular immunizations.
“Well, it must have been really horrible for you if it’s still hard to be in a hospital even fifteen years later,” Dr. Smith said. “Well, honey, I can’t promise you that we don’t need to do any of the tests that use those big machines, but we’re going to be as gentle as we can about them. We’ll tell you about the test as we get ready for it, and your mom and friend can be with you for as long as possible. It’s okay if you get scared; we’ll be there to help you through it. Do you know why we have to do so many tests even though you don’t like them?”
Justin watched her curiously and nervously.
“It’s to help make sure you’re not hurt even worse than we thought. The more we know about how you’re doing now, the better we can help you heal and go home faster– and not have to come back. You seem like a really sweet boy, Justin, but the hospital is no place for a young man like you.”
He nodded and tried to muster a faint smile.
“Can I ask you some things about what happened at school a few weeks ago? Would you call it a fight, or would you say you were attacked?”
“The bullies started it,” Justin said weakly. “The teachers said I turned it into a fight when I defended myself, but if I didn’t get them away from me…”
“It’s okay, it’s probably really hard to talk about. Your chart says the bullying didn’t break any bones, but let’s talk about soft tissue. Did your stomach only ever hurt that badly like this after the bullying, or before, too?
Justin looked down and away from his mother. This was going to really hurt her to hear, I thought.
“Whatever it is, Justin, just tell the doctor the truth,” his mother said. “You’re a good boy no matter what.”
Justin nodded and took a deep breath. “My stomach hardly ever hurt back when we lived in Portland. But when we moved, Aunt Julia said I had to finish everything on my plate, and sometimes my stomach hurt afterwards.”
“I see. Was it more than you were used to eating?”
Justin nodded. “Aunt Julia really doesn’t like wasting food.”
“Oh, baby…” Ms. Anderson said; she was probably feeling terribly guilty. “I’m so sorry”
She held Justin tightly as they went on talking with Dr. Smith. The more they said, the more she seemed to understand what was going on. The move had been very hard on him; leaving everything he knew and loved behind had been a sort of trauma for him– and on top of that, his aunt wanted her household run a certain way, his cousins overwhelmed him, and the school was never on his side. He’d been mocked and pushed around ever since his schoolmates found out he was gay– even the one person who was starting to be friendly with him turned away when Justin mentioned having a boyfriend.
Mrs. Carlton hadn’t taken into account the effects poverty has on the mind and body when she’d insisted Justin behave a certain way, clear his plate, wake up even when he didn’t feel his best, and everything else. Justin had sometimes gone to bed with only a thing or two from the food box in his belly. He was used to disappointment and– not exactly chaos, but certainly not the way his aunt tried to keep everything running like clockwork.
Dr. Smith wanted to get a few consults set up. She was worried that Justin would need to be treated for depression, and there were plenty of tests that had to be done to make sure he wouldn’t permanently be harmed by practically starving. A nutritionist would be by in the morning to help plan out his refeeding and get more intravenous nutrients into him. There would probably be more than that as his treatment progressed, but she didn’t want to overwhelm him.
Ms. Anderson said that she would meet with her boss the next day and work out her schedule with him, and I said that I would do the same. She wasn’t sure whether she wanted her sister keeping Justin company until they could talk and make sure Julia would drop all her expectations and just be compassionate. I decided that I would be the one to stay with him that night, and when Ms. Anderson got ready to leave and said she’d bring over some of Justin’s schoolwork the next day, Dr. Smith asked her not to, explaining that he needed to rest and just focus on getting well. He and I were both relieved to hear that.
At her insistence, I took some time for myself. Ms. Anderson stayed in the room with her son so that I could get some food and a change of clothes. I could also call David to see about coming in later the next day, since my friend was in the hospital and I planned to look after him in the night. I got a meal at a drive-through and headed back to my guest house to put a small overnight bag together. I also got in a shower, since I probably wouldn’t have time for it the next morning.
Grandfather spent a couple more hours with me before taking me back through the shadows to his car, which we took back to the parking garage before he returned me to the guest house. He would have to spend a few days with his newest baby and her mother before he could meet with me for more training, but he was determined to spend more time with me.
I fell asleep easily that night. I wouldn’t have stayed up that late if it hadn’t been for Grandfather– that is, unless Justin had needed me. The next morning got off to a slow start, and I needed more coffee than usual to get the day started. I got out of the shower to see a missed call from Justin’s aunt’s house and called him back while I was getting dressed.
“Blackthorne?” Justin’s voice asked; he’d picked up the call almost instantly.
“Hi, Little Moon,” I said, filling my voice with affection.
“I’m so glad you called back,” he said. I couldn’t help but notice that he sounded stuffy, and that he’d sniffled a few times.
“What’s wrong, Little Moon?” I asked as I looked for the pants I wanted to wear that day.
Another sniffle. “My mom yelled at me because I wouldn’t wake up when Aunt Julia told me to.”
“Are you not getting enough sleep? You’re going to get sick if you don’t rest.”
“I told them,” he said in a shaky voice. “They don’t get why I’m tired all the time.”
“Do you have somewhere to be? I asked. “If you don’t, they should just let you rest.”
“Aunt Julia says I’m not allowed to be lazy. I have to get up when her kids are getting ready for school even if I don’t feel good.”
I shook my head and sighed. “You’re still healing, Little Moon. Besides, boys your age need extra rest to grow. Can you…” I maneuvered around to get my undershirt on. “Can you get up for breakfast and take a nap when the dishes are done?”
“I dunno… They said if I was asleep when Aunt Julia got back from taking the kids to school, I’d have extra chores. I don’t have any energy as it is!”
“I’m not keeping you from anything right now, am I?” I pulled on a short-sleeved button-down shirt and took a long drink of coffee before sitting down to start on my boots.
It took him a few extra moments to answer. “I’m supposed to finish eating and then start the dishes.”
“Are you not hungry?”
“Kinda… but oatmeal is gross, and the scrambled eggs are all crumbly. She said she was gonna check the trash to make sure I don’t throw it away, and that I’d clog the garbage disposal if I put it in the sink.”
I could easily have called her bluff and told him how he could dispose of the food without getting caught, but I also wanted him to eat; it might make him feel less exhausted. I ended up talking him through adding a little cheese to the eggs to make them more edible, and he found some cream and blueberries to add to his oatmeal. When he mentioned that he’d finished off the remains of a couple slices of ham from the plates his cousins had left, I almost pointed out that it was unfair that others could leave their plates unfinished when he couldn’t– but I wanted him to eat as much as he could, so I didn’t bother.
“Blackthorne…?” he asked as he finished his food.
I grabbed the last few things I needed and headed out to start my drive to work. “What is it, Little Moon?”
“My mom got my new medicaid card the other day. She’s going to take me to see a doctor when she gets off work.”
“I know you don’t like that idea,” I said, “but maybe they can help you.”
“I don’t want to go,” he whimpered.
“What kind of doctor is it, Little Moon?”
“She didn’t say. She just told me I better not argue with her.”
“I see… I’m sorry, Little Moon. I can’t make her not take you, but I can be there for you when it’s over. Will you try to let them help you?”
He whined a little.
“For me? I don’t know enough about medicine to do what they can.”
“Okay,” he sighed. I knew he felt resigned, but it was for the best.
“Are you home alone right now?”
“Yeah… I’m not supposed to be on the phone, but I needed to hear your voice.”
“I’m glad I could be there for you. Are you okay alone until your aunt gets back? Should I come sit with you?”
“I’m okay,” he said, though he hardly sounded like it. “I better go.
“Just call me again if you need me, Little Moon. I’ll come see you after work and your appointment.”
“Yeah… I love you, Blackthorne,” he sniffled.
“I love you, too, Little Moon.”
I was most of the way to work when I got off the phone. Hearing him so defeated, tired, and sad weighed heavily on my own heart. It was tempting to just tell David that Justin needed me and take the day off from work. I could get all of his chores done while he slept, then help him with his homework. But I knew better; they’d know he was on the phone, and they’d be upset that I was interfering.
“Lisa called you here to keep Justin company,” Julia had told me when she’d pulled me aside the other night, “not to take over. He has to be able to stand on his own two feet.”
I’d wanted to remind her that no man is an island, and that if babies and the wounded could get help, so could Justin. It was getting harder and harder to not speak my mind to them.
I ended up calming down and spending the day focused on helping David fix computers and letting him tutor me in fixing small appliances. The skills he shared would come in handy when I started college and got a part-time job, so I really appreciated my time working with him.
At lunchtime, I checked my phone and saw no missed called or messages from Justin, so I hoped that meant he was getting some of his assignments done. After work, there was still nothing. I told myself that this was to be expected, since he didn’t have his own phone, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that he could have texted me from his mother’s phone while she was driving him to his appointment. The strange feeling still hadn’t left me when I came out of a convenience store with snacks, so I made myself call his aunt’s house.
“Hello?” one of his younger cousins answered.
“Hi, this is Emory, Justin’s friend. Is he able to come to the phone?” His aunt made a big deal about manners, and she seemed to appreciate me setting a good example for her children.
“No, he went to the hospital.” Short answers, so like a little kid.
“Okay, I heard he had an appointment today. Do you happen to know when he’ll be back?”
“I don’t know. He was sleeping when they left.”
Sleeping? This didn’t sound right.
“O-okay… ummmm… is your mother there? May I speak to her?
“She’s helping with homework.”
“Jacob?” a female voice called from further off. “Jacob, who’s on the phone?”
“It’s Justin’s friend,” the little boy told her. “My mom was asking who was calling, so I told her.” This had to be the youngest one, the way he was talking.
There was some talking in the back ground, then some shuffling, and then Julia’s voice. “Emory is that you?” She sounded rushed and worried. She shooed her little boy out of the room.
“Yes, Mrs. Carlton,” I replied, hoping my manners would get me more information. “I’m sorry to interrupt, b–“
“Emory, Justin was taken to the hospital.” I could hear her walking, and assumed she was trying to find a private place to talk. “He fainted while I was taking the kids to school. I found him on the kitchen floor, sink still running and a broken plate right next to him.”
My heart was racing. It happened just minutes after I got off the phone with him, maybe even while I was still deciding whether to go to work that day. “I…” I could hardly catch my breath to speak. “He… was he hurt?”
“From the glass? Just a scratch. But he was too weak to even get up. I called an ambulance to make sure he’d make it to the hospital. His mother is there with him now.”
“Oh…” I swallowed hard. He said he’d eaten while we were on the phone; how had he fainted? My mind was racing. “I– I… umm… th-thank you for telling me, Mrs. Carlton.”
“You should go there,” she told me. “I don’t know if Lisa will answer her phone for you; she hasn’t for me, but she’s probably busy being there for him. It’s the West Park Hospital, over on Sheridan Avenue. It’s not that big, but you should be able to find it.”
“I’m sure I’ve driven past it a few times,” I replied. “I… Thank you again.”
“You’re his best friend,” she replied. “I don’t know if he’s even awake yet, but he’ll probably be asking for you if– when he does.”
I pushed down the frustration I felt about her saying ‘if;’ I told myself that she was just as upset and worried as I was, and she’d corrected herself. I was already in the car and heading onto the road when I finished up the call with Julia. I immediately called Justin’s mother.
“Emory!” Lisa cried when she finally picked up. She sounded even more sniffly than Justin had earlier. “Oh my god, Emory, I’m so sorry I didn’t call you sooner! I’ve been at the hospital for hours and– Shoot, I’m sorry, you must be freaking out at the mention of hospitals.”
“I just got off the phone with your sister,” I told her, trying to sound calm even though I could hear my voice trembling. “She said Justin passed out…”
“He fainted,” she said, her distress starting to overwhelm her all over again. “Emory, he’s as light as a feather– oh, my sweet little boy…”
“It’s okay, Ms. Anderson, you don’t have to try telling me everything over the phone,” I assured her. “Can I come down there? Are you in the emergency room?”
“No,” she replied, on the verge of bursting into tears. “He was admitted… he just got moved to his own room.”
She managed to tell me the room number, and I promised to be there soon. I was parked in front of the hospital in less than ten minutes. I asked several staff and nurses for directions on the way; I didn’t want to get lost for even a second. Once I got to the door, I took a few steadying breaths before knocking gently. Lisa opened the door after a short delay.
“Emory!” she sobbed, clinging to me immediately, “Oh Emory, thank you for coming.”
She was shaking, and her face was streaked with tears. Her nose was running, and when we walked further into the room, I handed her some tissues and washed my hands.
When I turned around to look at Justin, I nearly fell apart like she had. Stripped down to nothing but a hospital gown and a thin blanket, he looked like a child– not a young man on the verge of turning eighteen. What was it about the hospital bed that made him look so skeletal and tiny? He already had an IV line placed– he really hated those, and I knew he’d be upset when he woke up and saw it– but it looked like he was only being given fluids so far.
Ms. Anderson had me sit in the chair beside Justin’s bed. He was sound asleep, breathing steadily, as peaceful as a baby. I caressed his cheek and pushed his hair out of his face, then took his hand.
“I’m here, Little Moon,” I told him softly. I paused to kiss his fingers– and also because my heart ached to see him like this. “I’m here.”
I caressed the back of is hand and his forearm. His palm, right near his thumb, had a half-dozen stitches in it, covered by a protective bandage; the gash underneath was deep red.
“Has he woken up at all since he was brought here?” I croaked.
She shook her head. “He slept right through the IV and stitches,” she murmured, struggling to keep from sobbing. “Even with all the nurses coming to draw blood, and the move up here, he’s been sound asleep. I had no idea he was this exhausted. I’ve been pushing him so hard, Emory… I feel like I just made things worse.”
I squeezed her hand. “You can’t beat yourself up over this.”
I didn’t know what else to say; she had done what she’d thought she was supposed to do as a parent. I’d never wanted her to make Justin move, and both my family and Killian’s would have taken him in so that he could finish high school among people he knew, but ultimately that was a personal decision. She wasn’t hurting him directly, and she wasn’t bringing people around who were purposely harming him. Even with his aunt being so strict, did they realize how much that hurt him?
We talked for a few minutes more before a doctor came into the room.
“Ms. Anderson? You’re Justin’s mother?”
She nodded. “Y-yes.”
The doctor looked over at me. “And this is who, a brother?”
“A friend,” I corrected, gently.
“Okay, sure,” the doctor said, looking over his paperwork. “Ms. Anderson, I’m Doctor Klein, a pediatrician here at West Park Hospital. We have quite a few things to discuss about Justin…” He looked over at me.
Ms. Anderson realized the doctor was wondering whether he should kick me out. “Oh– it’s fine, Emory can stay. The boys practically grew up together; I’m not going to separate them now. But you said you’re a pediatrician?”
“Yes, ma’am” Dr. Klein said. He pulled a chair from the other side of the room so that Ms. Anderson could sit own. “The patient is under eighteen, so he’s in pediatrics. I saw in his chart that his birthday is coming up, but… well, let me just get started.”
Ms. Anderson nodded, and he launched into his explanations. “So Justin came into the ER after fainting this morning. Has he woken up at all since then?” She shook her head, and he went on. “He was treated for a laceration that occurred when he fell. He might need a tetanus booster shot, but we’ll get to that in a bit.”
He turned the page in his file and went on. “His weight when he came in was eighty-nine pounds, nine ounces; with a height of five foot four inches, he is severely underweight. and It looks like the ER did an initial blood panel… Iron is low, vitamin C is low… vitamin D is low…” He shook his head as he went down the list. “The numbers on his metabolic panel would be too low even for a twelve-year-old, and his blood panel shows severe anemia.”
Justin’s mother watched the doctor nervously.
“Ms. Anderson, has your son had any major loss of blood recently? Any self-harming?”
“I… I…” she gasped, struggling to answer his questions.
“He’s never cut himself,” I answered for her. “He’s had accidents and the usual stuff boys get from rough-housing. If anything, it’s the bullying that’s the real problem.”
“Is he having trouble in school?” the doctor asked, pointedly looking at Ms. Anderson.
“There was a fight…” she murmured.
“Justin was attacked a few weeks ago,” I clarified. “Three against one. He barely managed to get them off of him and escape.”
The doctor added notes about the attack to Justin’s chart, asking questions as he went along, including the name of the urgent care where he was seen. Then he moved on to a few other questions before asking, “What does he typically eat in a day?”
“Not much,” Ms. Anderson admitted. “We… I don’t make very much money, so our meals have always been humble. He likes breakfast cereal, sometimes eggs and toast. When he’s in school, he’ll eat what they have there.” She looked to me for more information.
“He’ll eat, but he doesn’t clear his plate,” I said. “His other friends and I encourage him as much as we can, and that helps. He actually ate really well over the weekend. We had a sleep-over,” I added when the doctor gave me a curious look.
“What does he like? Is he picky?”
“His favorite is spaghetti,” Ms. Anderson said. “He’s had to eat what we can get, so there’s not much he’ll completely refuse to eat. It’s more that he doesn’t eat much of it.”
They talked a little more about his eating habits before the doctor concluded, “It sounds like he eats a variety of foods, but even with the lesser amounts, these test results are extremely low. What about purging? Does he throw up often?”
She gave him a terrified look. “N… He… Justin doesn’t…” She looked to me. “He doesn’t eat much, and sometimes he’ll try refusing to eat, but, he never…”
I shook my head. “Not at all. No suspicious bathroom trips, no weird stomach aches. He never so much as talked about purging.”
The doctor wrote a couple more lines in the file. “Is there always someone with him every minute of the day?”
“What? No…” Ms. Anderson said. “He’s seventeen. He can be home alone if he doesn’t want to go out, or I’m working. Sometimes he’s with his friends, but he likes his quiet time, too.”
“Even at school, he’s not watched like a hawk. Not many students are, really. People come and go from the bathrooms all the time– at the school, at the mall, restaurants, wherever. I’d say there were times when he was one of several in the restroom, and times when he was alone.”
More nodding and writing. “The reason I ask is that several of us have noticed some inflammation in his throat, most likely from repeated vomiting.”
“What? You think… you think Justin…” She shook her head. “No, my baby isn’t anorexic.
“I’m not saying it’s a diagnosis,” the doctor clarified. “We need to talk to him first, get some more information. If that is the case, he’s been hiding it exceptionally well.”
Ms. Anderson nodded and wiped away more tears. I gave her the tissue box.
“What if… Can I ask, is it possible that more damage was done when he was attacked than the clinic found?”
“We’ll get his records from the urgent care and determine whether he needs more scans.” The doctor flipped through a few more pages. “They didn’t run an STD panel yet… is he sexually active?”
“He… He was… before we moved.” Ms. Anderson looked to me, as though I might change that answer.
“The last time he was with anyone was the night before he left Portland,” I told her, avoiding the doctor’s gaze, “when he said good-bye to Killian.”
“That’s who he had sex with?” the doctor asked. “That sounds like a boy’s name.”
“I-it is,” she confirmed. “My son is very self-aware; he’s known that he only wants to date boys ever since… I think before puberty. That’s why he was attacked, too; the other kids at the school are so hateful.”
“Okay,” the doctor replied. “I’ll double check that the STD panel was ordered.”
“But… He was checked when he started going out with Killian,” I protested. “Everything came back negative. And Killian was a virgin– actually, he got checked, too, just so they could go to the clinic together. They’ve been faithful to each–”
“It’s important to be sure, the doctor told me; he did not sound like he was willing to budge on the issue. “I can have tests ordered for both of you, if you want to be checked. There are other ways to get some of the diseases the test covered.”
I did not like this doctor. I did not like how he insisted on the STD panel when he learn Justin was gay. I did not like the look he gave Ms. Anderson, as though she had a bad reputation, and I didn’t like how his eyes had scanned me. Did he think I’d slept with Justin, that I was lying about something? Was he assuming I was gay, too? Well he’d be wrong; I’m bisexual– no, pansexual, but that wasn’t the point. I could have coerced him into canceling the tests and apologizing, but it had been so long since our last ones that he was sort of right.
“The plan so far is to treat his malnourishment,” the doctor said, finally moving on. “We’ll get some infusions added to his IV and I’ll write up a plan for getting his levels up to par.”
Justin’s mother nodded. “Do you know… How long will it be before he wakes up?”
Dr. Klein pursed his lips and looked over at Justin. “Hard to say. He’s basically starving, and probably sleep-deprived. He’ll need intensive monitoring as we give him intravenous nutrients and fluids. Hopefully by the end of the day he’ll have had enough rest and nourishment to wake up.”
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.