The next day, at school, I told everybody that I slipped on some ice on the front stairs, and hit my face on the metal handrail. I managed to smile ruefully at my own stupidity, took the good-natured ribbing, went about my day.
At lunch, Paul - my best friend, Paul Warnock - came up to me. "Hi."
"Hi." This was the first time we had spoken to each other since last summer.
He smiled, shyly. "Your face looks like shit." The bruise was now purple shading to a sickly yellow at the edges.
"It feels like shit."
He looked down for a bit, then back up at me. "Did he do that?" His voice was barely a whisper.
I said nothing for a long moment. "Do you mean … Tom? "
"Yes," he whispered.
"What do you know about that? "
"A little," he admitted. " Just what he's told me."
"So, you're talking to him , now, instead of me . Thanks, Paul."
"It's not like that, Tim."
"I thought you were my best friend, Paul. Now you're his? "
"Please, Tim. Don't."
"Don't what , Paul? Don't try to understand why you won't talk to me any more, why you're all of a sudden best pals with my brother who won't stop beating the shit out of me?"
Paul glanced around, nervously, wondering if anyone might be eavesdropping on our conversation, which was in danger of getting very loud very quickly. "It's not like that," he repeated.
I tapped my sore cheek, winced. "It sure seems like that to me."
"He's … it's … well, it's complicated."
I put on my best stupid face. "Durrrh …" I drawled, crossing my eyes and sticking my tongue sideways out of my mouth. "Here's stupid me, too stupid to understand what all the smart kids are trying to say."
"Stop it, Tim. Just … don't. I wish it could be different, but it … can't."
"Then, explain it to me, Paul. Tell me what you think is going on. Use small words, if you have to. I'll try to keep up."
"I can't , Tim. He'd kill me if he knew that I told you."
"Well, from experience, Paul, I can tell you that he probably won't kill you. He'll just make you wish you were dead."
"He's having a hard time, Tim. That's all I can say. We're trying to work things out."
Which just left me even more confused. " We? " He blushed. What the hell was going on? I went on. "You two having a lover's quarrel, or something?"
His eyes flared wide and he laughed. "What … what makes you say that?"
I stared at Paul for a moment. "I'm just kidding , Paul."
He licked his lips. "Oh. Okay." He stood up. "I … well, I need to get back to class."
The next few weeks went without any major incidents. Tom, to his credit, stuck to his promises, kept his hands off me. It helped that he seemed to be spending more and more time away from the house and the rest of us. Nobody knew where he was going, but he always showed up right in time for supper and managed to do his schoolwork, so our parents just traded glances with each other and let the status quo just status its quo right along.
After that day in the cafeteria, Paul stopped speaking to me for good. It hurt for a bit, then I made it not hurt.
And then the rumors started.
"I thought Paul Warnock was your best friend?"
I glanced over at Jane Callahan, shrugged. "Well, not really. Not any more. Why?"
"Emily Prescott saw Tom over at his house a few days ago. Going inside."
I shrugged again. At least now the mystery of where Tom had been spending his days was solved, if not the why of it. "I don't care."
"Well, it's just funny, I think. I mean, you and Paul used to be thick as thieves, and now …"
That's how Jane spoke; she thought nothing of using a phrase like thick as thieves , pulling it from one of the novels she always had her nose stuck in, mostly English ones of a certain bent. On her worst days, a little bit of a posh drawl found its way into her flat and prosaic Midwestern accent until somebody parroted it back to her and made her redden with embarrassment. She also made full use of ellipses, letting her voice trail off into insinuation and implication.
"We're not … anything , Jane. Really."
"Well, it's just funny," she repeated. "I mean, Tom 's so … so … athletic , I guess. I mean, baseball and wrestling, and swimming, and … and … Paul's so … well, Paul , you know? You know what I mean. Chorus, and drama, and …"
She trailed off again into parts unknown, her hands fluttering like birds; I was unwilling to follow her. The 'and …' is where Paul and I had first met each other: orchestra. I, plodding along with my violin, sawing back and forth on it like a lumberjack felling a tree, trying to coax something more tuneful than a cat being run over by a lawnmower out of the thing. Paul, acquitting himself much better on the flute, pursing his lips just so over it, coaxing the most beautiful sounds out of it and earning him more than a little praise out of Mr. Duckworth, the band leader.
I looked up at her; something in all the ellipses clicked together. "What are you trying to say, Jane?"
"Oh, nothing, really. It's just odd that the two of them are … well, I mean they're everywhere together, you know?"
I had not known, had not realized. "Everywhere?"
Jane nodded. "Yeah. At least, that's what Elizabeth Schulte says. She saw them down at Ted Drewes one day … you know, the one on Chippewa. She said they seemed to be having a gay old time of it." She smirked. "So to speak."
The click got louder. Paul and I used to end up there on occasion, for their frozen custard. "It's just ice cream, Jane. Doesn't mean that they're …" And here I supplied my own ellipsis. "Whatever."
She nodded. "No, I know. You're right … it's just that nobody would ever think of the two of them as friends."
The possibility that my brother and Paul might have become more than just casual friends had never entered my mind until now … but it did go far in explaining some of my brother's elusive behavior. I had never really thought of Paul that way; to me, he was just … Paul. Maybe it was because most of our friendship had occurred when we were younger and all of that stuff - romance and sex - had never really entered into our relationship.
But … Tom? My brother? With Paul?
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