At the end of that day, I slipped into our house, dropped my book bag on the dining room table. My mother peeked her head out of the kitchen. "Take that upstairs, Tim."
"Yes, ma'am, I will."
She frowned. "Your brother not with you? Again?"
"No, ma'am. I have no idea where he is." Not an untruth; I didn't really know where he was … but, now - thanks to Jane and her vague way of speaking - I had some idea. "Can I get a snack?"
I went into the kitchen, made myself a peanut-butter sandwich, took it and a glass of milk up to my room, along with my book bag, busied myself with homework.
I would wait until later to bring out my armaments.
The four of us were seated around the dining room table, working silently on meat loaf and mashed potatoes and green beans and rolls. We never really talked much as a family during supper.
I was about to change that.
I looked over at Tom, about to shovel a forkful into his mouth. "Have a good day with Paul, Tom?"
The fork stopped in mid-air. "What?"
"Isn't that where you were? With Paul?"
His eyes darted left and right, to each of our parents, then back to me. "Who told you that? "
I shrugged, seemingly nonchalant … although I was actually very chalant. "Jane Callahan brought it up. Said that the two of you were seeing a lot of each other, lately."
"How does she know that? " Not quite a denial.
"Emily Prescott told her. Said she saw you going into Paul's house."
My mother glanced at me, then turned her attention to Tom. "Is that true, Tom? Is that where you've been spending all this time?"
Tom glanced at me, his eyes slits. Remind me to kill you later. He looked at Mom. "Well, yeah, sometimes. It's not a big deal."
"Well, honey, we had no idea where you were, all this time. You should let us know where you are."
"It's not a big deal," he repeated. "Paul's over here all the time, anyway."
"Well …" I volunteered, looking squarely at Tom. "Not lately. Not since last summer." Not since one very specific day, when I had walked in on the aftermath of something I had not understood back then.
My mother looked at me again. "Is that true?" She thought about it some more. "Come to think of it, I haven't noticed Paul over here."
I nodded. "Yeah. We hardly ever see each other, any more. He doesn't even talk to me in school all that much."
"Oh, honey, that's too bad. I liked Paul."
"Yeah," I answered. "He's changed, lately. A lot. Guess he's found a different crowd to run around with."
"Such a nice boy. Sweet."
I tamped down a snicker, but I think Tom saw it. "Maybe he just likes me more than he likes you," he murmured.
Our father finally roused himself, wondering if the two of us were girding up for another battle royal. "That's enough, Tom. Both of you just … eat."
I took a bite of mashed potatoes, chewed them as thoroughly as one can chew mashed potatoes, washed them down with a swallow of milk. "It's just that Jane thought it was funny, since the two of you don't have all that much in common." I wiped my mouth. "Come to think of it, what do the two of you talk about? Like when you … oh, I don't know … like when you and Paul end up at, say, Ted Drewes?"
Tom's eyes flared wide. "Who told you that? "
"Well, Jane. I mean, Elizabeth Schulte happened to see the two of you there. At least, that's what I think she said."
My father turned to me. "Tim, stop it. Right now."
After supper, I went up to my room, Tom up to his. I planned on staying there all night, anyway.
But, then, here was Tom, wedged in my doorway, arms crossed. "What the fuck was all that about?"
"What was all what about?" I countered, innocence personified. Downstairs, I could hear the sounds of the television going in the family room. It sounded like That Girl . Mom liked the show, liked Marlo Thomas. For his part, Dad used the time to read the Post-Dispatch .
He rolled his eyes, jinked a finger over his left shoulder, downstairs. "All that bullshit at supper. Me and Paul."
"Well, isn't that where you've been going? Or is Jane Callahan a liar?"
"She's a gossipy cow, is what she is. It's none of her business who I hang out with. Or yours."
"With somebody who happens to be my best friend."
" Was your best friend. Not any more."
"And why is that, Tom? What do you have to offer him that I can't?"
Tom said nothing for a long moment. Then, "I don't know what you're talking about."
" I don't even know what I'm talking about, Tom, because you can't find any way to tell me what the hell is going on."
" Nothing's going on! We just happen to like each other. What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing, as far as I can tell. But it doesn't explain why Paul can't talk to me any more. Did you tell him not to?"
"Don't be ridiculous." Not an answer.
"Well, you might want to be careful. A lot of people are talking about the two of you in school."
"A lot? Three people, as far as I can tell."
I ticked them off on my fingers. "Jane, Emily, Elizabeth. C'mon, Tom - you know what they're like. They are a bunch of gossips. I agree with you. But they talk to a lot of people."
"What are they saying? Do you even know?"
"Maybe that's your problem. They don't know, any more than I know. Which means they'll say anything that pops into their heads."
"What have you heard?"
"Well, for starters … Jane thinks that you and Paul are … well …" I shrugged.
"Seeing … each other."
" Seeing? What does that mean?"
"That you're … I don't know … that you're …" I could feel the heat rising in my face.
He smiled, slowly, the leer oozing across his face like oil. "You think I'm queer for Paul, don't you?"
" I don't think anything. That's what Jane thinks. At least, that's what she hinted at."
"But you believe it, don't you?" I shrugged. He went on. "You know what I think, Tim? I think somebody's queer for Paul, but I don't think it's me ."
The implication hung heavy in the space between us. "Bullshit."
"You said it yourself, Tim. Paul's different. He's … what did Mom say? Sweet? " He smirked. "Sweet on you , maybe. Not me. You've known him a lot longer than I have. Maybe you're the one he really likes, only he can't come out and say it. And you're mad because he's dumped you."
"That's … that's ridiculous, Tom. You know that's not true."
"Maybe, maybe not." He stepped into my room. "You need to be careful, little brother. Two can play this game, you know. I can talk, too. I can talk to a lot of people, more than that stupid bitch Jane Callahan. Just … just watch yourself, Tim."
With that, he left my room.
This 14 chapter story was created for the Inspired by a Picture: The Only Way is Up! Writing Challenge. The picture that inspired the story is:
Gymnastics at Ila school By Leif Ørnelund / Oslo Museum, License: Attrbution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0
Please read all 14 chapters before answering the survey at the end of the 14th chapter
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