I’m messaging Evan when my mom starts screaming downstairs—a long line of howls, like she’s auditioning for the part of the stabbed cheerleader in a slasher film.
Of course I think something is majorly wrong, like Babykate is dead, or Gunner’s gotten maimed in a training exercise, or I don’t know what. Why’s she screaming unless it’s bad, right? Unless someone’s dead or almost there? But the thing is she didn’t scream like this when she found my dad six years ago. She was quiet then, creeping closer to the couch like she didn’t want to wake him. I was behind her, and all I could see was his shoe—worn, reddish-brown Steve Madden—and part of his pant leg sticking out. It was like this book I’d read where a bunch of kids accidentally killed their teacher and had to keep it a secret, and all you saw on the cover was the dead teacher’s leg, and he was wearing, like, a serviceable loafer. I’d spent a lot of time thinking after I read that book and decided if I ever accidentally killed someone, I’d just admit it. Because it was an accident.
I remember I stared at Dad’s shoe, a sick, slamming pain going through me like a tractor tread was rotating around my insides. He can’t be
and so still
and if he’s…but he’s not…
Mom shook him, and there wasn’t any give to his body, and there was a moment where it was like a rock got shoved from my stomach up through my throat, a big aching cluster of puke or sound or wishes. I thought I was going to scream. But she didn’t, so I didn’t.
She’s screaming now, though, and I’m pretty sure I know why. My IM bloomps with another message from Evan. She yells, “Dresden! What is
this?” and yep—she’s seen the letter.
She named me after a firebomb, but she’s the one who sounds like she could fill a whole city with flames.
I don’t answer. Just stare at the emoticon Evan’s stuck on his message. I think it’s supposed to be winking and grinning, but it looks like it’s biting down on an olive pit.
The message says: You hard yet?
I don’t know what to say about Evan. I’m pretty in love with him, I guess, even though I don’t know what he looks like, aside from his ass. And that might not even be his ass in his profile picture. It looks way too waxed, and it has kind of a halo light around it, so who knows. But if it is his ass, it’s a nice one.
I’m probably in love with Evan because he’s the only guy I talk to now. Rudy and them aren’t my friends anymore, and I hate most of the people at school. I used to talk to Gunner, even after what happened, but he’s not around now, and I can’t just call him up at boot camp.
So it’s just Evan. His profile says he’s twenty-six, from Eureka, CA, and that he likes Fruit Roll-Ups and House of Cards
. It says Don’t waste my time if you’re not real
. He’s been to Uganda, but only because his parents took him there on a mission when he was twelve. We met a year ago in a chat room on Fagland. We joked about Fagland being the worst name ever for a hookup site. I’d send him taglines like, Fagland: Because you need a blowjob more than you need subtlety
. He’d write back lol
, which was way more exciting than it should have been and made me want to make him lol all the time.
The thing about Evan is he’s not very free with his affection. So if I do make him laugh or tell him something he actually seems interested in, it feels like a huge accomplishment. I keep trying to engage him in conversations, and sometimes it works, and it’s cool. He’ll tell me some shit about his family or where he’s going over the weekend or about his quest to learn guitar. He works at a video store where they mostly sell movies but still rent them too. This is a big deal to him, because I guess he used to go to video stores a lot as a kid, and now he has some kind of nostalgia empire in his mind. I barely remember video stores, which I sometimes point out to him to remind him I’m only eighteen.
I don’t know whether I remind him of that to make him jealous or to make him want me. Both, I guess.
Mostly, though, instead of talking to me, he sends me video links. Sometimes the videos are of guys playing guitar, or really intense auditions for those singing shows. But a lot of times they’re porn, and I don’t know what to say. I want to like the same shit he does, and it’s usually pretty easy to get off on something when I picture Evan getting off on it too. Or when I just picture Evan, which is difficult, since I don’t know what he looks like.
Right now, he’s sent me a link from gaytube, and a message saying:
Tell me if you cum.
I like how Evan never uses the letter “U” in place of “you.”
Mom’s not screaming anymore.
Did u cum?
I write back. I do use “U” to show him I’m my own person.
I take my dick out of my pants. It’s soft, but maybe it’ll get hard before 3:53 so I can come when he did.
Sometimes I have trouble getting it up. My therapist thinks it’s because of Gunner. That’s too easy, like throwing everything in the trash even though if you were a good person, you’d separate out the recycling. Can’t get hard? Gunner. Failed chemistry? Gunner. Mom and I can’t go two minutes without screaming at each other? It’s because of what my older brother did. What happened didn’t feel wrong at the time, not exactly, but now that I’m older, I feel way worse for not realizing right away how disgusting it was.
I told Mom last year. We were fighting, and I just yelled it out, and only after it was out did it occur to me she’d probably call me a liar. But she didn’t. She got quiet. I clenched my fists until my nails went through my skin, and I threw up on the carpet. I thought she’d be mad about that, but next thing I knew, she had guided me to the couch. My chest was over her lap, my face buried in the cushion, my legs twisted together, and she was touching my hair. I sobbed with these high-pitched yelps I still remember because I hated
them. She probably hated them too, but she held me until I stopped. Then she started separating strands of my hair really gently and whispered that my brother has a lot of issues and that sometimes people do things they don’t mean to do. She said hopefully the military would sort him out, and that we shouldn’t tell anyone about what happened until we figured out whether Gunner was sorted out.
There’s such a thing as flat pain. Pain that doesn’t really hurt; it just kind of outlines on your body where it would like to hurt you, but it’s too lazy to take the time to do it. I felt so much deadness and fear in that moment, with my mom touching my hair and telling me to wait and see if Gunner got sorted out. But nothing sharp and nothing permanent.
She said it would be okay, and I thought maybe it would be.
I can be really thick-skulled like that. A real dumbfuck.
I watch the video and get hard. Rub my dick with the heel of my hand, pressing it into my belly. I close my eyes so I can only hear the video, because sometimes watching a dick go into an asshole grosses me out. Which I don’t tell Evan. Usually I tell him I want him to fuck me, and he says wish I could
and wish you lived closer
and tell me how I should do it
. And I always describe something I’ve seen in one of the videos he’s sent me, because even if I knew how I wanted to be fucked, I wouldn’t tell him in case he didn’t want to do it that way.
I’m panting and biting my lip and listening with the volume on low. Suddenly my door opens, and Babykate walks in wearing a new dance costume that makes her look like a miniature airline pilot. I yank my shirt down over my dick. “What are you doing
?” I shout. I hurl a pen at her, and she shrieks, and I shriek back. To mock her, partly, but also because it makes me nervous when people are loud, and I’ve already had to listen to my mom scream about the letter.
I get nervous sometimes—can’t-see, can’t-breathe, cut-my-palms-with-my-nails nervous. My therapist wanted it to be because of Gunner. She wasn’t actually my therapist; we only saw each other three times, last year. I found her myself, and I saved up money to see her, like in family movies where a kid is trying to save for a bike or a dog or whatever and then he sees a flyer for a competition and first prize is the exact amount of money he needs. I was saving for a consultation with Tammy Lethem. Not because I thought she could fix me or I needed to be fixed. But I wanted to see someone’s reaction if I told them about Gunner.
This was before I told Mom and realized I didn’t want anyone’s reactions, ever.
I told Evan too, one night when I’d drunk most of the bottle of wine I’d been hiding in my closet. I wanted to see if he’d be grossed out or sympathetic. He claimed to have had a dream once where he had sex with two guys who were brothers, so I thought he’d at least be open to talking about what Gunner did. He wrote That sucks, man
, and it was so unsatisfying but such a relief that I wrote back Thanks
and went to bed with red wine staining the chewed places in my lip and the IM still bloomping.
“Get out!” I shout at Babykate now. “I’m busy.”
“Mom says come down, you sad freak.” Kate is on this kick now where she calls people sad. She’s nine. “You sad old man,”
she yelled out the car window the other day to some guy who honked at Mom for cutting him off.
It is, like, profoundly sad to be called sad by a nine-year-old.
She slams the door.
I told my therapist at my third and final visit that I scream at my sister a lot. She asked if I was trying to get my relationship with Babykate to mirror Gunner’s and mine. Then she thought about how that sounded, I guess, and she tried to apologize, but I’d already picked up her tissue box and hurled it into her spider plant. She said she just meant was I being aggressive toward Kate because that was how Gunner treated me? I told her I hated her and that no one would ever want to fuck her—I don’t know where that came from; maybe she can figure it out with her three fucking master’s degrees—then I went jogging downtown in my jeans and school blazer until I sweated so bad I had to stop at the town square fountain and drink from it. Which you are not allowed to do.
I don’t want to treat Kate like Gunner treated me. But I think I treat everyone a little like Gunner treated me. Except maybe Evan.
The thing is, Gunner treated everyone like shit—not just me. Mom was scared of him. The only one he didn’t scream at or hit was Dad. I think because Dad was so goofy. He worked a lot, but when he was home, he was always joking and making us laugh. I don’t think Gunner knew what to do with that.
It’s amazing to me how simple it is to get people scared of you. There’s no secret to the way Gunner attacks. He wasn’t even that strong, physically, before he went to military school. It was just the fact that he went after people at all. That he dared.
Mom probably thinks that’s how Gunner managed to do what he did—threatening me, hitting me. But it wasn’t like that. It was a week after Dad died, and I kept waking up hungry. No matter how many times I went to the kitchen and ate—pasta, toast, casseroles, everything the Keebler elves ever baked in their gay-ass tree trunk—I woke up every hour or so with this emptiness in my gut. Around four a.m., Gunner came in. I don’t know if I was glad to see him. I wasn’t really thinking in any rational way. I just made room for him on the bed, like I used to when we were little and had to share a bed because Nana and Papa were staying in his room. He was fourteen. I was twelve.
He climbed under the covers and hugged me way too tight and asked if I could sleep.
I said no.
He said Dad’s aneurysm flooded his whole brain with blood.
That made me sick.
“You’re all I have now,”
he whispered and kissed me on the lips. It felt weird, but I didn’t say anything. He kissed my neck and said, “It’s all right.”
It did feel all right, his fluttery lips and breath smelling like fruit and pretzels. It felt like something that had nothing to do with death. I guess I knew it was wrong, but less because of who he was and more because I knew sex was wrong in general, unless you were an adult. I hadn’t even jacked off before, because I was scared to. But Gunner had all these pictures on his computer of women sitting on cars with their giant breasts out. He’d shown me once.
I didn’t care that night. Dad was dead, and it seemed like we all had a free pass to do whatever we wanted. Mom had thrown knickknacks from around the house against the piano, which was expensive and out of tune and the only nice thing we owned. I think she wanted to hurt the piano, but there was a lot of collateral damage. Gunner, on the other hand, hadn’t screamed or thrown anything or hit anyone for days after the funeral. When he came into my room that night, I wasn’t scared of him.
I didn’t tell my therapist that. I wanted her to imagine Gunner was gripping my wrists and saying he’d kill me if I tried to fight. Which isn’t fair to Gunner. Because he was only sad and lonely. He was such a kid that night. He didn’t want to hurt me; he wanted to hide—that’s what I think.
He rubbed my stomach, and we laughed when it growled even though I’d just eaten three packs of ramen. Then he pushed my dick with the heel of his hand and said this would help me sleep. I didn’t know my body could feel that way; I really didn’t. It was such a big sensation to experience in such a quiet room at such a lonely time. I stared at his face, but he wouldn’t look me in the eye. Just looked at my lips with his eyes half-closed. “Wh-what are you doinnng?”
I whispered, my whole body shuddering. I can still hear my twelve-year-old voice drawing out doinnng
He said, “We can decide what’s right.”
He said, “We can, we can, we can.”
He was rubbing so hard it hurt, and I closed my eyes too, and then it was easier. Something lifted out of me. I thought of the copy machine in Dad’s office—huge sections of it swung out so you could fix it when it broke. I thought some huge section of me had detached, and now everyone could see where I was jammed. He stayed in bed with me all night but didn’t touch me again except to put his arms around me, which I wanted. I wanted that. I slept.
* * * *
I don’t go downstairs, so Mom comes up. I’ve put my dick away by then and erased the video from my history and told Evan I have to go. I always take some satisfaction from being the one to end our conversations. I want to talk to him for as long as he’ll talk to me, but that feels pathetic. He’s usually the one who says he’s busy or has to go, or just logs off without saying good-bye. So every now and then I pretend I’m insanely busy, swamped with better things to do.
Now I’m staring at my algebra book, just staring. The cover is a photo of the Mars plumes, and it says Intermediate Algebra
, and it’s got grooves all over where I’ve scored it with my nails and pencil.
Mom doesn’t knock. She doesn’t have the letter in her hand. She smells like she’s been cooking onions.
“I hope we didn’t already pay for your cap and gown.” Her voice is hoarse. She’s like that. If she gets upset, she’ll scream and throw a fit, and then a few minutes later she’s all soft and tired, and you wonder if she’s even the same person.
I shake my head. “We don’t have to send the money in until April.”
“We don’t have to send it in at all now,” she corrects.
“There’s summer school, maybe.” That isn’t what I mean to say. I mean to say I’m fucking done with school anyway, and fuck graduating; I’ll go to Eureka and work in Evan’s video store.
“How are you failing four
All those are lies. I’m failing because I don’t care.
With Gunner gone, I’m alone with Mom and Kate, who maybe don’t really like me. No one touches me. There’s another gay guy in school, Dominic Feldman, and girls are always hanging on him, petting his hair, hugging him. I’m not even anyone’s gay best friend. Everyone knows not to touch me, and I’m glad.
But I want to fuck Evan. I want him to fuck me in Eureka. That’s far enough away I won’t even have to be the same person once I’m there.
“I’m bad at school,” I mutter and draw another line in my algebra book with my nail.
“You’ve never flunked a term before. Why now? Why with three months
My mom has a strange face. It’s not ugly or anything, but sometimes she gets this expression I’ve only really seen on teenage girls. This sort of stony-eyed glare, like you are ruining her life
. Like maybe instead of telling her you’re bad at school, you’re telling her you’re taking her car keys and she’s grounded. Her eyebrows go down and her mouth falls half-open, and she doesn’t seem like a grown-up at all.
Other times, though, her face looks old and incredibly sad.
Right now it looks old, sad, and
teenager-y at the same time.
“Can you go away?” I ask.
“I want to talk about this.”
“I know, but I’m having, like, a…a hard time with this experience.” I stand and press the heels of my hands to my forehead. “With you being here, right now, and I’m in this weird mood. Can you go?”
She looks at me for a long time, and I wonder what she sees. I think for her it’s like looking at unusual scenery. You know—palm trees and beaches, stuff she’s only ever seen on TV, because she’s never left Oregon. She recognizes me, but I don’t look right
to her. I don’t look like home.
“Are you going to want one pork chop or two?” she asks. “For dinner?”
The times I feel closest to breaking are always the times someone says they like my shirt or asks if I got a haircut. Or asks how many pork chops I want, like that matters. My chest is so fucking tight, and I’m still thinking about yelling at Kate.
Mom doesn’t leave, so I do. I go and get on my bike and ride to the Thursday-afternoon farmers’ market downtown. The market is indoors in winter, in the karate studio, and it’s mostly crafts and canned goods. I buy apricot jam and start eating it right out of the jar with my finger. I hunch outside the door, like I think someone might approach me wanting some, and I’m gonna growl them away like a dog.
When I’m halfway done, I break the jar on the ground and wonder if Gunner still does shit like that, or if military school trained it out of him. Some guy who sees me throw the jar says, “Hey!” but nothing else. I go inside and ask for a broom and dustpan, and while I’m waiting for someone to find them, my eyes get clogged with tears, and everything around me goes fuzzy. Whoever hands me the broom doesn’t notice, and I stumble toward the door.
Someone almost runs into me coming in. He smells like cedar, and he’s got a flannel shirt on. Suddenly I can’t think of anything sadder than flannel. It’s like, lumberjacks and people with deer heads on their walls.
That makes me laugh, and I still can’t see the guy through the tears. He keeps his hand on my shoulder, kind of holding me back even though I’m still marching forward, like those cartoons where a character holds a swinging attacker at bay with a hand on the other guy’s head. “Move!” I shout.
He says, “Hey. Take it easy.” Not mean, but I still puff up to yell at him
to take it easy. I think maybe he’s the one who saw me throw the jar outside. I laugh again, and it turns into a sob.
It’s crazy how sick I am and how no one notices. Every single day I’m either dead or too alive, and the world is just ruts and puddles and roadkill under the same kind of bland, blue sky I’ve been seeing my whole life. It’s fucked, really
, how ordinary everything is, even this kind of pain. It’s not fair, and I’m glad. Fair sounds more boring than anything.
“I’m not even crazy,” I tell the guy, who has taken my broom in one hand and has turned around to head back outside. If I were crazy, I wouldn’t feel
crazy, right? But I need to know if this guy thinks I am.
Once we’re outside, it’s cold, and he tells me to hold the dustpan on the ground near the glass. He sweeps the shards up—they’re covered with glops of jam and dirt—and I follow him to the recycle bins. I pocket one small piece of glass on the way. We dump the mess. He takes the dustpan. He tells me he’ll give me a lift if I need it, but that I should go home and sober up.
I sink to the curb and sit, laughing. My eyes are pretty dry now. “I am sober. I’m really, really sober.”
He sits next to me. I notice he’s kind of thin but strong looking. I still won’t look at his face. “What’s wrong?” I like how subtle the note of concern is. You wouldn’t even notice unless you wanted it to be there. Like how wine all pretty much just tastes like fucking wine, but once you read on the label you’re supposed to taste cherries, you do. Most of him is gruff. But he cares enough to ask. So that’s my cherries.
Maybe nothing is really wrong. I put my hand in my pocket where the glass is. If I get cut, it might be a little easier to breathe.
I wait for him to ask why I broke the jar. But he sticks his hand out and says, “Caleb.”
Then I have to take my hand away from the glass and shake his. I don’t tell him my name, though.
He says, “How about some organic cider? There’s a stand inside.”
I say I should get home. I feel rude, which I normally don’t care about, but he deserves something a little better, maybe, so I ask what he does here. He says watermelons and lumber. He tells me he has some property outside of town, and he collects and recycles wood. He gives me his card, which is his contact info handwritten on a thin piece of reddish wood. His name is Caleb Harview, and his business is Harview Wood Rescue.
What the fuck is a wood rescue? But whatever.
He rises first and helps me up, and I stand there looking at him for a minute. “I’m Dresden.”
“That’s an awesome