What did we want from him, this angel and this devil, this charming and witty and strange and secretive man who talked to us when others would not, who plied us with his words and his seductive rumble of a voice and his attentions? We knew, or so we thought, what he wanted from us: our youth, our inexperience, our awkwardness, our desires.
Our silence. Our acquiescence.
He wanted, we thought, what we were all too willing to give him: our ability to bare ourselves to him, body and soul, in that darkened room.
But what did we want from him?
I don't know who found who first; maybe he was always there and I just didn't notice … or maybe he just showed up this morning and I didn't notice that, either.
At this point, right after the trial, I'm not in the habit of noticing much of anything. I'm on autopilot, robotting through endless days of same built upon same, everyone around me deferential and too kind, too polite, with a sympathetic hand on my shoulder or a sadly hopeful smile or a mumbled you're so brave or he got what he deserved.
Which may or may not be true. I don't know. He certainly got what they thought he deserved. Nobody thought much to ask me how I felt about it.
Anyway, back to this who found who business.
Jake is the name on the cup, when I make it and call it out, and here he is … brunette, bearded, burly, but in a nice way, a kind way, a way that makes you smile. Ursine, I think is the word that Simon would use. Simon loves words, loves - no, loved and, Christ, why can't I get this right? - what they could do, loved the power they could wield against another, loved how they could convince anyone to do just about anything.
"Thanks," this Jake says to me as I hand him his coffee, an Americano, simple and direct, nothing fancy, espresso and hot water. He turns away, turns back, opens his mouth to say something, decides against it, decides again. "We should … well, we should talk, later. When you have a chance."
"Uh, okay, sure," I give back to him. "Do I … do I know you?"
"No," he responds. "But you should."
He's cute enough, if you want to pick up what he's laying down, if you're into that, into guys with bushy beards and a bit of a paunch … and, truthfully, I can see the appeal of losing oneself in his bulk, having those arms wrap around you protectively, nuzzling your face with his beard. I imagine the body underneath the baggy shirt and shorts: covered in hair, maybe, much like what I can see of his arms and legs, carpeted in wiry brown fur. Strong and solid. Ursine.
But, I skew a little differently. I like my guys tall and thin, runners instead of wrestlers, maybe, their bodies spare and lithe and smooth, nothing wasted, all arms and legs. Avian, Simon might say. Passerine.
Simon coached track, was a runner, was slender and bird-like, was spare and lithe and smooth, with his gangly awkwardness and his proud beak of a nose and his crown of orange-red hair. Psittacine, he might say, sending me to the dictionary once again.
"I don't get off until three," I say.
He smiles. His face lights up when he smiles. "I'll come back."
And here he is, when I step out onto the street and to my bike, chained to a lamppost. He's sitting on a bench, looks up when he hears the door chime.
Here's the smile, again. "Hi."
"You got time?"
"Sure. I guess. I don't have to be anywhere. Not yet, anyway."
He nods across the street, to a tree-lined park. "We should go over there. More … private."
"Uh, okay." He stands up; I abandon my bike. We jaywalk across the street and into the park, which is at least ten degrees cooler than the sidewalk. There's a fountain in the middle of the park, some war hero on a horse in the middle of it; the horse is reared up on its hindquarters - baring its undercarriage, so to speak - and I smile. The sculptor saw fit to give his stallion a generous serving of that which makes a stallion a stallion and, over the years, countless hundreds of people have rubbed those little hemispheres of bronze until they shone bright and smooth.
Jake sits on a bench and I sit next to him, close but not too close, friend-close and not boyfriend-close. "So, Eli -" he starts.
Some primal surge of panic rushes through me; I hold up a hand. "Wait. How do you know my name?"
He frowns, puzzled, points a finger at my chest, and I look down to see my name tag still pinned to my shirt. I blush. "Oh, yeah. Sorry. It's just that -" I fumble with it, unhooking it from my uniform, manage to stick myself with the point, drawing a small bead of blood.
"I know. I understand. I was the same way."
Now it's my turn to be puzzled; if he's trying to pick me up, this is the strangest technique I've ever witnessed. I smile to take the sting out of what I say next. "Look, Jake. I'm … well, I'm sure you're a nice guy and all, but I'm not interested. Not like … that."
And the puzzled look volleys back to him. "Interested in …?" And then he understands, starts laughing. "Oh. I get it. You thought I was … well …" He shakes his head. "No, I'm not. Well, I mean, you are cute and all, but that's not what this is about."
High lob, and now it's back to me. "So … what …?"
He sobers. "Look, Eli … I would have known who you were even without the name tag. You understand?"
And I do. I stand up. "Yeah, okay, right. I have to go."
He reaches out, actually brushes my forearm with his hand and I flinch. "Please, stay. I'm … well, this isn't about that." He pulls a face, rolls his eyes. "Well, it is, but not in the way you're thinking."
I step away from him, all instincts telling me to get the fuck out of here as quickly as possible. "Okay, fine, whatever. I just … I need to get out of here." I pivot on my heel and march out of the park and across the street. My hands shaking, my heart pounding, I work the lock and pull the chain off and am gone.
My dad's home when I arrive; he looks up from his laptop, smiles. "Hey, sport. How was your day?"
"Good, I guess." I smile, because he expects it. "Same old stuff." And a guy tried to pick me up after work, but I leave that part out. That part of my life, they don't want to know about. Not yet.
"Okay, okay. Good." He looks at me a little longer than ordinary, something he's been doing ever since everything went down, trying to see inside me, maybe, past the shell, past the surface. "You hungry?"
"Uh … yeah … I mean … not yet, but …"
"I thought we could go out to eat tonight, when your mom gets home?" The rising intonation in that, a request masquerading as a question.
"Uh, sure, pizza's great. That'd be … nice."
"It's a date, then."
And, of course, once again they have me where they want me. Under their supervision, under their control.
As soon as I can, I go to my room, change out of my work clothes and into a t-shirt and shorts, open up my laptop, my new one, the one my parents reluctantly bought for me after the police confiscated my old one.
I have to be careful, with this one; that's the deal, now: my parents want to know what I'm doing, what sites I'm clicking on, who I'm talking to. I slip earphones in, call up some music, start it, letting it fill my head. The choice, I think, would surprise my parents, perhaps even please them. It's Beethoven.
Simon liked Beethoven. Maybe still does, if they let him listen to it. I don't know if my parents know that. I'm certainly not going to be the one to tell them.
I hold my fingers over the keyboard, and I realize something: I don't know Jake's last name. It never came up. I could type jake beard cute into the search engine and get a million hits … and most of them are going to be pictures of Jake Gyllenhaal and ordinarily I wouldn't mind that. That's the kind of beard I could lose myself in. No offense, Jake-whoever-you-are.
But, I have to be careful.
The next day is uneventful, as they all are. I think about Jake-whoever-he-was, wonder what he wanted with me, why he needed to talk. You should get to know me, he'd said. And he hadn't been trying to pick me up, he claimed, had laughed out loud when he'd realized what I was telling him.
But, he'd called me cute.
Am I? I don't know. I look like each of my parents, I guess. A regular kind of face - children don't run away screaming when I enter a room - a regular kind of body … skinny, maybe, like my dad. Brown hair with a hint of red in it, like my mom. Hazel eyes. Not a bad body, I think. Muscular enough.
Simon had liked it, had seemed to enjoy it.
A regular kind of guy, me. Except for one thing. Well, maybe two.
The day after that, though, he's back. Jake-no-last-name.
Barbara gets him his Americano this time, but his eyes are on me the whole time. For someone not trying to pick me up, he sure acts like somebody who's trying to pick me up. Or stalking me.
I make up some excuse, take a rag and some spray cleaner, go out and start cleaning tables. It needs to be done, anyway, and I don't mind doing it. When I get close enough to him, I turn my back on the counter so that Barbara doesn't see that I'm harassing customers.
"What the fuck do you want, Jake?" I murmur.
He grins maniacally, points to the coffee with an index finger, gives it his best Special Agent Cooper. "This is a damn fine cup of coffee!" Heads turn; someone chuckles.
I roll my eyes, almost smile. "I'll be sure to let the Ethiopians know. They grew it."
The grin fades. "All I want to do is talk, Eli."
"Not here," he whispers. "It's … personal."
"I told you -"
"It's not about that, Eli! It's … something else."
I open my mouth to speak, but then Barbara calls me over; we're getting slammed, and she needs the help. I go back behind the counter, start working orders. Jake stands up, drains the last of his damn fine cup of coffee, holds up three fingers, looks a please, be there! at me, and leaves.
"We have something in common," he says to me, in the park.
I look at him. "You're gay."
He hesitates, then nods. "I am. But, something else."
"You like coffee."
He rolls his eyes. "Well, okay, yeah, but …"
"I hate coffee, by the way," I counter. Not a lie; I do. I don't mind the smell of it, but the taste makes me gag.
He frowns, then grins. "But … you work in a … coffee shop."
"It's a living."
He nods. "Don't you want to know?"
"What else we have in common. Who we have in common."
He nods. I mull over my - short - list of friends, wondering who it could be. But it might make figuring out who he is easier. I don't recognize him from school, though; he looks older, in his twenties, maybe, so I ask.
"How old are you, Jake?"
"Twenty-four." A number that surprises me.
"Did you go to Southeast?" Twenty questions. Are you bigger than a breadbox? Animal, vegetable, mineral?
He shakes his head. "No. Somewhere else. Oak Hill. Across town. Now I'm over at the community college."
"Then I can't imagine who you're talking about."
"Really? Okay." He pulls out his phone, presses buttons on its face. "I'm not supposed to have this, but …" he mutters. He grunts, stops pressing buttons, hands me the phone. "Here."
"Shit!" I exclaim, looking at the phone. I almost drop it. Staring up at me is Simon. Simon Fanshawe. My Simon. Standing next to him is a boy, a high-school student, maybe, dressed in a wrestling singlet that clings like paint to his muscular body. The boy is grinning and handsome, his strong, square face framed by brown curls of hair. My eye takes in the broad shoulders, the little nubs of nipples dimpling the cloth, the washboarded belly clearly obvious under the silky fabric … the generous hummock of flesh cradled there between his legs. It takes me a moment to realize who this is. Add the beard, add the paunch, add maybe eight or nine years. My heart is hammering in my chest.
"This is you."
He takes the phone back from me, clicks the picture gone. "That's where he started. Oak Hill. Coaching track, of course. Teaching English, of course." He thinks about it, eyes squinting. "Well, maybe not where he started, given …" He trails off, shaking his head, then picks back up. "Well, at any rate, that's where I met him."
"And you and he …"
Jake nods again. "Yeah. For a couple of years. Then he moved on to other places. Other schools, I guess. To Southwest, eventually. And … you, eventually."
"And you never told anyone, obviously."
Jake smiles ruefully. "What would I have said? How would I have said it? Things like that aren't supposed to happen to guys like me, right? My family would have … well, I don't know what they would have done."
"So, he got away with it."
Jake nods, sighs. "Yeah, I suppose he did." There's some kind of note in his voice, a rueful tone, that I don't understand.
I'm not sure what else I'm supposed to say. I'm not sure why Jake is telling me this. I'm not exactly surprised to find out that Simon Fanshawe's done this thing before, with others. Men like him can't be stopped, not if no one ever says anything. I wonder if I would have said anything, in the end. But I never had to. Simon beat me to it, even if he hadn't wanted to.
"I'm sorry this happened to you, Jake."
He shrugs. "Yeah, well. I'm sorry it happened to you, too."
We fall silent, stare at each other, each of us - no doubt - thinking about our experiences with Simon, what we'd done, what he'd convinced us to do even as he had managed to make us think that we ourselves had thought of it first.
Oh? You'd like to try that? Well, okay, if you want. Always innocent, always obliging. Well, let's give it a try, shall we? What's the worst that could happen? Cue sly, yet winsome, grin.
And the rest was history.
And each of us now - no doubt - thinking of how it must have been for the other. Images of Jake and Simon in my head, in that room; is he thinking of me the same way? I blush with the shame of it, although I am not ashamed of it.
It will always be a part of you, my therapist says. But you have to get out in front of it. You can't let it be the only thing that you are.
I stand up. "I should … well, I need to go." Have a nice day, Jake. Hope I never see you again.
He reaches up, grabs my forearm with his wrist, and I let him. "Eli, wait …"
"What? What do you want, Jake? Just fucking say it."
"You can't just leave. You … well, it's not just you and me, Eli."
I look at him. "What?"
"There's … well, there's more of us."
I'm stunned, but not. Despite myself, I sit back down on the bench. "How many more?"
He stares up into the sky, eyes vacant, doing math. "Nine. Besides you. You're the last. I think."
"How do you know this, Jake?"
He smiles, and there is the boy in the photograph again. "Because I know them. Because they're my friends. I … well, I think you should meet them, too. I want you to meet them."
I think of my therapist. This doesn't sound like getting out in front of it. This sounds more like wading into the deep end of a pool whose bottom I can't see. "I … don't think that would be a very good idea."
Jake sighs. "I know. Believe me, I understand. But I think it would do you good to meet them. I know they want to meet you."
"You told them about me?"
"You had no right to do that! I don't even know who the fuck you are!"
"Eli, Eli! I didn't have to tell them about you. Your trial … well, it was pretty much all over the news, right? The kid who finally got Simon Fanshawe locked up where he should be? Why wouldn't they want to know who you are?"
I sit there, fuming, ready to run … but I don't. I look at Jake. "I didn't want to, you know. He -"
"- had a way. I know. I remember."
I look away from Jake, look into the park, at the couples, at the mothers with children, at the joggers, the strollers. At the group of homeless guys passing around something in a paper sack. Something moves through me, some kind of emotion, or a combination of them, pity and sadness and longing and regret, all of it bubbling around in my brain, in my gut.
"These guys …" I start.
Jake nods. "All you have to do is meet them, Eli. After that, if you don't like them, or you don't want to be a part of it, you can leave and I promise not to bother you again."
I can live with that, I think. "Okay. Promise."
He smiles. "I promise."
A few days later, we're in Jake's car, something old and nondescript, the kind of car you get as a hand-me-down from your grandmother, sober and sedate. We're on our way out of town, up into the hills, up to a campground where these boys, his friends, are staying.
"This is the second year we've done this," he explains. "It was my idea. I'm hoping that we can do it every year."
"I'm … not much of a camper." A vast understatement; I've never been camping in my life. Both of my parents are academics, more home inside a room than outside of it, preferring their own company and that of other people like them. The nearest my father ever gets to being in nature is walking across the campus quad.
He chuckles. "Neither are we. It's not really camping, not like tents or shit like that. A cabin, that we all fit into. Tom's dad owns it, is letting us use it." No explanation of who this Tom is; presumably, he's one of the boys.
There's so much I want to ask Jake but I don't. Instead, I look out the window at the passing scenery. It's nice, actually, to be out of the city; it's cooler, up in the hills, among the pines and the camel-tan grass and the occasional flare of wildflowers, purple and orange and violet. I glance over at Jake. I wonder what it's like to be him, to be an adult and not a child, to have lived through this thing that happened to the both of us. I wonder if he has someone, hope that he does, hope that he has someone to go home to, to unburden himself to, to be with, to love.
I, at least for now, do not have that. Do I want it? Perhaps. Did I think that I had it? Perhaps. And that is something that I have not yet said to my parents, to my therapist, to anyone who knows me. It is perhaps something that I will never say to anyone.
Jake notices me staring, glances at me, smiles. I smile back.
Soon, about forty-five minutes after we've left the city, we're here. Jake eases the car off the road and onto a gravel road leading into the woods. We bump and bumble our way on the rutted path, the car bucking histrionically, its suspension creaking. Jake and I look at each other, pull faces; Jake reaches out, pets the dashboard as he might a cat: easy there, girl … we're almost there.
And then we're there. Here.
We emerge from the woods into a clearing, a kind of meadow. To our right is a cabin, presumably Tom's dad's place. Jake brings his car to a halt next to other cars, some newish but most of them older, like Jake's, hand-me-downs. He kills the engine, turns to me.
"Well, this is it."
I look around. "It's nice."
Jake opens the door. "Well, let's go meet the guys." His head swivels around towards the group of cars, does a quick census. "I think everyone's here."
I reach out, grab his forearm, as he had done mine. "Wait …"
He turns to me, says nothing, reaches out in turn, squeezes my shoulder. "It'll be okay, Eli. I promise."
"But, they know everything …"
Jake shakes his head. "No. Not everything. And, anyway - what they do know is what they themselves experienced, the same as you, every detail of it. Everything Simon did to you he did to all of us."
And I think of all that Simon and I had done with each other, to each other, things that I had thought only as my own, those dark and mysterious things, whose import has only now become apparent.
And, I, now, not alone in that. Jake and I look at each other for a long moment; it's not that kind of look - there's no real attraction between us and I think we both know that - but the other kind of look, the one that communicates without words and beyond words, the look of a shared and ineffable experience.
Finally, I nod, and we climb out of the car and go towards the cabin.
The cabin is a long, low-slung kind of building; it appears to be two large rooms separated by a covered porch open at both ends, the kind of building known as a dog-trot. The far end of the porch frames a view of a lake that sparkles and glitters in the afternoon sunlight.
From our right we hear the murmur of voices.
"They're in here," Jake says. He turns to me. "Ready?"
"Fresh meat!" a voice exclaims, when we step inside, and there are chuckles, knowing ones, but not unkind. I turn towards the speaker, a boy of startling and uncommon beauty, his head crowned with a helmet of blond hair, his face square and cheekboned and chiseled, his eyes the color of a Scandinavian fjord. He is tall and slender and graceful.
Jake, too, chuckles at the remark, shakes his head, rolls his eyes. "Guys, this is … well, this is Eli."
I wave a hand. "Hi. I'm … well, yeah … Eli."
And we go around the room, quick introductions, the names flying out of my head nearly as fast as they go into it.
The blond boy is Tom; it is his father who owns this place, lets this group use it. Does he know, Tom's father, what happened to his son? Does he know about Simon?
Will, next, almost as tall as Tom, could almost be his brother, but for his dirty blonde-brown hair and hazel eyes.
Dylan, a lot like me, quiet and shy, average looks … and his counterpart - like Will to Tom - in Eric, who is garrulous and outgoing in contrast.
Marcus, perhaps an outlier, short, with skin a milky chocolate brown and his dreadlocked hair caught up in a magenta-colored stocking cap. His smile flashes white in his narrow, bony face.
George, stout and round-faced, perhaps another outlier; had Simon been experimenting, at that point, bracketing his tastes, a this but not that, as Jake perhaps had been? But then I remember the Jake in the photograph, the powerful muscularity of his body under the singlet. Perhaps George had been something different, as well, back when he met Simon.
Andy, next: more quiet, more shy, even, than Dylan, but so much like I remembered Simon that he could be the man's son, with the same bright red hair and freckled face and blue eyes. Another experiment, perhaps, seeing if Simon found … well, himself, perhaps, attracted to himself, to a younger self. There's a haunted look in Andy's eyes, one that I've seen in my own, the look of someone still stunned by the whole thing, still trying to understand it and failing, the look of someone hollowed out inside.
And, then, "Carter," Jake said. "Where's Carter?"
Tom answers. "Out for supplies, I think. Stuff for the campfire."
But, then, the door bangs open to reveal another boy, presumably the missing Carter, carrying bags of food in both hands. He nicks a head towards the door. "More stuff in the truck, anybody wants to get off their lazy asses and help." But he's smiling. He puts the bags down on a rough wooden table around which is arranged a motley collection of chairs, all different colors and styles.
He turns to me. We stare at each other across the span of about ten feet and a few seconds of silence. He's taller than I am, but we're cut from the same cloth: thin and wiry, plain, inoffensively handsome. Well, he more than I, perhaps. His is a kind face.
Then, "You must be Eli."
I smile. Something about Carter wants to make me smile. I stick out a hand. "Guilty, I guess."
Carter takes my hand. "Welcome, Eli. Welcome to the troop."
"Or whatever," he answers. "Not sure what we call ourselves, really. I hate the term survivors. Sounds like we got through a plane crash, or something like that."
"Well, we kinda did …" from Jake.
"Yeah, maybe," Carter murmurs. He turns to me. "Anyhow, glad you could make it."
"He almost didn't," Jake quipped, chuckling. "Had a little scene in the car, right before we got here."
I shrugged. "Sorry. It's just that …"
"Yeah, I know," Carter says. "We've all been there."
We work our way into each other quickly. It helps, I guess, that we have something in common … although we talk about everything but that, at first.
There's something about Tom, something … off, I guess, although it sounds rude to say it. He catches me looking at him, trying to figure it out.
"Tourette's," he volunteers, finally.
"Oh. That's …" I get them all confused.
"Well, people think we're the ones who say shit and fuck a lot, at the worst times. And, yeah, there's that, but there's more to it. Tics, and other weird shit."
His voice is loud and braying; it's like his volume is always set to ten. And, he's not exactly rude to other people; maybe direct, not someone likely to hide behind social niceties. But, Jesus - he's gorgeous. Easy to see why Simon pulled him out of the pack. I always wonder what it would be like to look like Tom.
We manage to put together a meal; it's not much - guy cooking - hamburgers and hot dogs and chips and beans and slaw, but it's enough. As we work, we talk some more, dancing closer and closer to the elephant in the room, but only just. The work helps us relax and open up.
We sit on both sides of the table made of oak boards, really a kind of oversized picnic table. I find myself sitting next to Carter, which pleases me. Elbows and thighs experience the happy accident of brushing up against each other.
Later, we sit around the campfire, and I discover that I am not much for campfires. No matter where I sit, the smoke manages to get in my face, almost as if it's stalking me. I know that I'm going to smell like I've been barbecued when this night is over.
Jake trundles a large cooler out from the kitchen, opens it, starts parceling out beers to each of us, setting off an impromptu chorus of hisses and cracks of opening cans. When he gets to me, I shake my head.
"Take it," he tells me, with a smile. "Something tells me you're going to need it."
I take it.
Around me, the talk is desultory and quiet, boys in groups of two or three. Andy, of all of us, is quiet, staring off into the distance, his face creased by a frown. He seems to be working himself up to something, but I can't tell what it is.
Beside me, Jake clears his throat, and the boys all go quiet. "Andy?"
Hearing his name, Andy nods, blows out a deep breath, stands up, turns to face me. "As the last one to do this, it's my turn to ask for the next story." He glances at me. "Eli?"
And I know what's coming, and I also understand the look from earlier, the thousand-yard stare. "Yes."
"You know what I'm asking, right? We want you to tell us your story. I was … well, I was the last one Simon knew, before you."
My palms are sweaty; I rub them on my shorts. "Yeah, I know. The trial, and …"
"Yeah. I figured."
I swallow. "I'm not sure I can … but, anyway, I've already told this story."
"But not to us," Jake interjects. "I know you've told your parents and the cops and the lawyers and the judge. But this is different. We're different. Nobody else really understands why we did what we did, why Simon did what he did, why we let him do it. We understand."
I remember the first time I told this story, to the police, after they'd seized Simon's tablet and the photographs and videos on it, images of him and me … and - I learned later - the others, the boys sitting around me. I had very nearly collapsed with the weight of saying it, through a blur of tears and anguish and hurt, staring at my parents as I spoke, watching their faces, stunned into the worst kind of silence. Oh - and betrayal. Simon had betrayed me, in the end. And so I felt then, watching my parents, that I had betrayed them, as well.
I look at Jake, who looks his bear look back at me.
It was the voice, at first, that caught me. Silky and smooth, clipped and very proper, almost a drawl, the drawl of a public school education and a good upbringing, in the finest of families from one of the Home Counties sprawled around London. It was a voice one could lose oneself in, take pride in, perhaps: this man finds me interesting, wants to talk to me, wants to blanket me in that voice.
Of course, none of that was true, but I didn't know that, not at that point.
He was there, that first day of school, a newcomer to it, as was I. Another year, another school, or so it seemed, for me … although we never moved from town to town, so I couldn't even proffer that as an excuse. Instead, my parents treated me as some kind of chess piece, trying to find with each new place an atmosphere where I might find myself. It never occurred to them that I might find myself if they would just let me light in one place and stay there for a while.
Anyway, back to him. Simon. Even the very name itself: not common, not here, not in this place. It might be a name for parents to pluck out of the list of such names, but only after they'd exhausted the Brendans and Jareds and Colts and Hunters that most kids seemed to be saddled with. Or my own name, Eli, the result of a quick jaunt through the Bible and a name that was solid, was Biblical enough but not, say, to the extreme of Zachariah or Japheth.
And, the Fanshawe bit. More proof of his difference, his superiority, his breeding. The real deal, we told ourselves, pleased and more than a little bit awed that a man like this would be in a place like ours.
Anyway, back to him. Simon. Tallish, thinnish, birdish, a crown of swept-back coppery hair on his long, bony face, a neatly-trimmed coppery beard the closing parenthesis to the business up top, bright blue eyes behind the perfectly round and professorial horn rims, a way of dressing that was both casual and elegant at the same time: expensive clothes worn almost as an afterthought, unconsciously.
And, the voice. Did I mention his voice?
And on that first day of class, each of us strangers to the others in the room, each of us remarked upon, chatted about, laughed at … but, his gift, the thing that redeemed him and not me, that voice as he talked about himself, went about the room, asking each of us our name and something about ourselves. I'd stuttered through something, red-faced, some girl in the corner sniggering at my awkwardness, and I wanted to dry up and blow away.
But he was there again, after school, as I wound my way through unfamiliar halls to what I thought was the athletes lair of this particular hell and tapped on the door of an office.
He and I stared at each other for a long but not particularly uncomfortable moment. Then, "… Eli, is it not?"
Yes, it most certainly is, I wanted to say. "I … yeah … I mean …" I eked out.
He smiled, teeth flashing white against the new-minted copper. "You look like a runner," he said. "Do you? Run, that is?"
"I … yes. Before … at my other school. Yeah."
"And you want to join my team?"
His team. "Yes. I … well, I'd like to try." It was one thing I thought I could do well, I thought.
"Are you any good?"
"I … think so." I listed for him my accomplishments, hoping against hope that he'd heard of me, that my fame had preceded me.
But, then, "Well, I'm as new to this as you are. Why don't you bring your running kit to school on Thursday and we'll see what you've got, alright?" He turned away, but then snapped his fingers. "Oh, right." He leaned over to a file cabinet, rifled through one of the drawers, surfaced with a packet of papers. "You'll have to fill these out, as well … stuff about your health, so that you can't sue us if you drop dead, something like that." He grinned, jinked his eyes. "I do hate when that happens."
My hands shaking, I took the papers from him, stuffed them into my backpack. "Well, okay. I guess … well, I guess I'll see you Thursday."
He chuckled. "It's a date."
Thursday found me in the company of others like me, boys and girls alike, runners all of us, hoping for a shot on the team. Simon was not yet here; I spent the time warming up, stretching, limbering. Of course, all the other students knew each other, stood around chattering in groups, deliberately ignoring me; I regretted again my parents' willy-nilly approach to my education in relation to the importance of stability. Perhaps they'd hoped that the constant change would develop within me the skill to throw myself into any social situation and master it; the opposite turned out to be the case, in fact. I had a tendency to draw into myself, a tendency that would persist, perhaps, for my entire foreseeable future.
A tendency, it turned out, that Simon was able to exploit.
I was ready to call it quits, ready to walk away from this, when - suddenly - there he was, walking towards us, unmistakable as the autumn sunlight glinted in his outrageously colored hair. What would have happened, I often wondered in the wreckage of this disastrous thing, had he been one minute later and I had left?
But, here he was, among us. He was, like us, kitted out in a singlet that left his stringy and muscular arms bare, showing us a night-sky's worth of constellated freckles overlain with fine copper hairs; the singlet was paired with flimsy and nearly-translucent running shorts that emphasized his narrow waist and long legs. I could imagine his pale pink-white skin glowing beneath the crisp white cloth, dragged my mind up and out of that particular gutter … and it fell promptly into another, deeper gutter as it noticed the way the cloth gathered and bunched itself at the middle of him, there, between his corded thighs. On his feet were a battered pair of running shoes, obviously his favorite. Other coaches seemed to distance themselves from the sport they coached; this one seemed ready to join us in our endeavors.
Instinctively, we gathered around him, listened to him, to what he hoped to achieve. I hoped that I had it within me to achieve that. I wanted to have it within me. He surveyed all of us who hoped to win his favor. I hung back, in the rearmost part of the small crowd, waiting my turn. His gaze found mine, narrowed, and then he smiled.
"Welcome, Eli. I'm glad you could make it." He turned away as I nearly swooned, swiveled his head around to all of us. "Well, my friends - let's see what you've got."
He was not as young as he'd first appeared, not as young as I'd thought him. There were wrinkles around his eyes, around his mouth, across his forehead, telltale signs of a life spent outside, perhaps, in the sun. He looked like someone in his thirties, maybe honing in on forty. And yet, for all that, he looked youthful to us. Maybe it was the running, or his natural leanness; many of our other teachers were, if not overweight, at least a little … well, soft, here and there, once-firm flesh having given up the ghost, spilling out over belt lines, or proving too much for this blouse or that dress.
It might have also been in the way he interacted with us. He never let us forget that he was our teacher and, therefore, our superior, but he also didn't treat us like the idiots we probably really were. He listened to us, engaged us in adult conversation, treated our half-formed ideas and thoughts as serious and worth debating.
It started out simply, innocently, this thing that was to become something greater.
I came to class one morning early to find him on his tablet, shopping for … house paint? He looked up as I entered and put my backpack down next to the desk I habitually sat at.
"Good morning, Eli!"
"Good morning, Mr. Fanshawe. What're you up to?"
"Oh, nothing," he answered. "Just thinking about repainting some of the rooms in my bungalow."
"Sounds like fun …"
He chuckled. "I'm not sure that's at all accurate, Eli, but it's something I should do." He studied me for a moment. "Might go better if I had some help, perhaps." He grinned. "I couldn't possibly persuade you to help me, could I? I'd pay you, of course."
I assumed he was joking. "Yeah, uh … sure."
"I'm serious, Eli."
"Uh … well, I mean … I don't have much experience in painting …" But the idea of making some money was enticing.
Simon made some kind of dismissive gesture. "Oh, it's fairly easy. I've done a little of it before. As long as you're careful and stay between the lines, you should be fine. It's just paint."
"I … well, okay, then. I guess. When do you want to start?"
"Well … why don't you meet me after school and we can go buy what we need?"
I never thought twice about it, really, never thought that doing work for one of my teachers was not common, not something that everyone did. If I thought about it, I would have admitted to myself that I liked the attention, liked the … specialness of it all, that Simon had picked - out of all the students in this school - me to share this thing with, had picked me to share this bit of his personal life with.
If I thought about some more, I might have remarked that the arrangement we made wasn't exactly normal, either. Simon never took me directly from school to his little bungalow. I can't remember the reason he gave, but - given that I was used to riding my bike to and from school every day - I would ride by myself over to his house and we would go from there.
I have to be careful, he said, grinning. Wouldn't want anyone getting the wrong idea.
Something I thought I understood but didn't.
I enjoyed them, these afternoons with Simon, both of us in paint-spattered work clothes - t-shirts and shorts - at work in one room or another, scraping and sanding and patching, and then the cut-in and the rolling. I found that I enjoyed the work, as well; it was calming somehow. I could turn my brain off and just let it happen.
Working side by side, our formalities with each other slipped away. Well, I had always been Eli, of course, but - quickly - Mr. Fanshawe became Simon.
"If we're going to work together as equals, you have the right to use my first name," he'd said.
And, oh, how vain I was! How I had delighted in the electric thrill that shot through me every time I went to his house! I, the chosen one, the one he wanted to be around, never thinking about the fact that I was only fifteen.
And, then, the accident.
In hindsight, it was not an accident, and not much of one, anyway. Simon, above me on a ladder, cutting in the ceiling trim in his dining room and I below him, doing the same along the baseboard, carefully, barely breathing lest I upset my hand's steady progress. This was the last room we had to finish, and I was already a bit sad that this would be one of the last afternoons I would spend with Simon. In the background, the radio whispered to itself, something classical … Beethoven, I believe. Afternoon classics from the college radio station; when the news came on at five, I knew it would be time for me to go home.
And, then, above me, a noise, a clatter, and a curse from Simon - oh, shit! - and then something sticky and wet upon my head, spattering down and away.
He'd dropped the cup of paint - nearly full - he'd been using, right on top of me.
I rose up, dripping the stuff down on the drop cloth, and here was Simon, dabbing at me with a wet rag, trying to get the worst of it off me.
"I'm so, so sorry, Eli! I missed a step coming down, and … oh, but look at you! You're covered in it!"
I took the rag from him, started mopping my arms and chest, my head. "It's … well, it's okay, really … I'll just … go home, and …"
"Oh, but you can't, Eli! You can't go home like this! I'll … well, look, why don't you get out of those clothes and I'll soak them and put them in the washer. And you can take a shower."
"But, my clothes …"
"Oh, right. Well … you can … I can lend you something until they dry."
"Well, yeah, okay …"
I stripped off my t-shirt and shorts, handed them to Simon, acutely aware that I was all but naked in front of him … and that I didn't mind it. "My underwear seems to be - nope, there's some paint on the waistband."
To his credit, he did blush. "You can … well, go into the bathroom and you can hand them out to me through the door."
I did, and after he took my soiled clothing, he disappeared to the basement with it balled up in his hands. I monkeyed with the shower, got it to a decent temperature, luxuriated in the hot water, watched as paint-stained water sluiced down the drain.
When I was done, I stepped out, dried myself with a towel taken from a stack of them on a steel and glass étagère in the corner of the bath, cinched the towel around my waist and stepped out into the hall.
"Simon? Simon?" No response. "Hello? Hello …"
"Oh! In here!" he called out, from the direction of his bedroom. I damp-footed it down the hall and into the room; he looked up as I entered … and some glassy kind of look came into his eyes, something dreamy and distant. We stared at each other for a strange few seconds.
"Uh … clothes?" I prompted.
"Oh! Uh, of course … here …" He reached down, picked up a sleeveless t-shirt and a pair of his boxers, handed them to me.
"Thanks." I took them with me back into the bathroom, slipped into them, went back out with my damp towel, handed it to him.
"Your clothes should be done in about a half an hour, I think," he told me. He smiled, then chuckled. "I think we're pretty much done for the day, right?"
I grinned. "Oh, no, I'm fine. Let's get back to work."
"Oh, no, yourself. You're not going to ruin another set of clothes."
"Hey! You're the one who dumped the paint on me, if you'll remember." Something quirked through me, and this slipped out: "Anyway, I could just paint naked."
He let out a barking laugh, crossed his arms, began rucking up his t-shirt, giving me a glance of his flat belly. "Well, if you insist …"
"Uh, easy there, sport. I was kidding."
"More's the pity, I imagine." He glanced at a clock on his bedside table. "Anyway, it's about time for you to go, right?"
"Oh, yeah, I guess. We can finish up next time, I guess?"
"Of course. I'll, uh … try not to shower you with paint."
The next time, though …
"Hey! You finished up!"
"Oh, yes. I thought that since we were almost done anyway, I would go ahead and finish the job."
"So, you don't need me …"
"Well, not for that … but you're more than welcome to stay. We don't always have to work, you know."
"Oh. That might be nice." A certain amount of promise in that statement, but it would have to be up to him to extend the invitation past today.
"Well, that's what I thought. We could just hang out in the garden." Over the years, Simon had turned his postage-stamp back yard into a minor paradise. I went on out at his request while he busied himself in the kitchen.
I sat in a low-slung chair, propped my feet up on a footstool, looked around. The garden, I knew, was nearly done; it was well into September and things had a kind of faded look to them, of plants settling down for the season, ready for colder weather. In a month, I knew, there would be cold rain and grey days, and sitting in gardens would be over with.
Not that I would ever be back here. There was no reason, I thought, for Simon to have me back here, not if there were nothing to be done. I knew that this day would be coming, but now that it was here, I regretted it.
Simon interrupted my dour thoughts as he butted his way through the door. He sat across from me and handed me something in a frosted glass.
I held it up to the light, then to my nose. "Is this … is this beer?"
"It is, indeed. Meager thanks for a job well done, Eli."
I started to hand the beer back to him. "I … can't have this, Simon. You shouldn't be giving me this."
"Oh, please, Eli. You can have one beer. Boys your age back home start drinking this stuff when they're half your age."
"England. Not America. You could get into trouble, you know."
"A risk I'm willing to take, Eli. You've earned it. And it's just beer. One beer isn't going to knock you on your arse." He pulls a face. "And nothing will happen if someone keeps his mouth shut, right?"
I suppose that that was when it started, that day in the garden, when we had done nothing but talk. I'm not even sure that I remember what we talked about that day - the beer was stronger than I expected - but I remember clearly the feeling that came over me as we sat there. This was what I had been looking for, I thought, for as long as I could remember, something that I seemed never to get from my parents, for whom I was just a project, a thing to be shaped and molded, processed, and then sent on my way. I knew that my parents loved me, of course, but it was a love that seemed tempered by potentialities, by possibilities, by what I could be or might be.
Simon seemed to enjoy me for what I was.
And, thus, the rest of it.
A few weeks after that day in the garden, I found myself walking to his classroom at the end of the day. Our plans were to - as usual - end up at his place this afternoon … but I wondered what it would be like to do it here, to make love here, in this classroom, on his desk maybe, with the other desks around us, bearing silent witness to us and our coupling.
I smiled to myself, wondering if I might propose such a thing, wondering what he would make of it.
He looked up as I entered, but instead of the usual smile there was a frown, a deep one, and looking a little frightened, at that. He ran a hand through his hair; his hand shook as he did.
"You haven't … well, you haven't seen my tablet, have you?"
And, his voice - it was … different, somehow, the voice of a stranger.
And, thus, the rest of it.
When I'm done, we all look at each other in the dimming light of the campfire; it's nearly done for, with the merest glimmers of red in and among the embers, like foxfire.
None of us says anything for a long moment, each of us lost in his own memories of how it was.
I sigh. "And, the rest …" I look at Jake, at Tom, at Andy. "I never saw any of it, you know. Just … me, what he and I …" I cough. "They never mentioned your names at the trial, just, well, you know … Person T or Person J."
"I can't believe that I … fell for it," Andy mutters. "God! How many times has that fucking little house been painted?"
Jake chuckles. "Well, we all did, right? He knew that we would. Somehow, he knew that we were the kind of boys who would fall for it, fall for the act. Fall for him. We wanted him to love us, and we were willing to do anything it took to get that love."
"He wasn't even that good at it," Marcus volunteered. His voice took on a clipped and posh British accent. "'Oh, sorry, love … I've gone and spilled the paint. Here, why don't you get out of those clothes, darling?" He makes a small noise, some derision in it. "Jesus. We were all a bunch of idiots." He looks around at all of us. "But we all wanted it. We wanted him."
Simon's voice, at the trial, had been the most surprising aspect of all of this; when I heard him speak that first time, I nearly fainted. The British drawl was gone, replaced by something Midwestern, flat and lifeless. He was from Des Moines, I learned. Iowa. It was like learning that the world was indeed flat, or that your parents were not your real parents, so deep was the betrayal.
The name, of course, wasn't even real. Brad Tompkins, it turned out to be, the name of someone who manages a fast-food place or does your oil change, something bland and not in the least exotic. But, for me, he would always be Simon.
"And that's the thing that we can't tell our parents, not ever," Carter adds. "If they knew how we really felt …"
"And still feel?" Jake adds. He and I look at each other.
"I … maybe. I don't know." I look down at the fire. "It's not that he was … well, older, I think. It's just that he …"
"Paid attention to us. Treated us like adults, maybe," Tom says.
I look at him. He's so beautiful, so … perfect. He could have anyone he wants. "Can I ask you something, Tom?"
"It's going to sound … weird."
He smiles. "You can ask me anything, Eli. You know that. That's one of the rules."
"I … okay." I gather myself. "Why him? For you? I mean, you're so … well, I'll just say it." I give voice to my thoughts. "You're so beautiful. You could have anybody you wanted. I mean, you have to know that. So, why him? Why all that?"
Tom darts a look at Marcus, looks at me for a long moment, shrugs. "I don't know. I really don't. I mean, I guess that people might find me sorta good-looking, in a way -"
"Bitch, please …" Marcus quips, and we all chuckle.
"- but only until I open my mouth, right? I mean, you haven't seen how I really am. You can ask Jake, though, or anybody else. When I'm in a group of strangers, I just … well, I can't control myself. I start stuttering and twitching and saying stupid shit, and I can't help it, and I always sound like I'm shouting at the top of my voice. And, yeah, people are nice about it, to your face, but you just know that behind your back they're laughing at you and making jokes. Or saying crap like 'Oh, that poor boy,' shit like that." Tom pokes the fire with a stick; an ash-covered log tumbles down with a splash of sparks. "Simon didn't laugh. He didn't make jokes. He was patient with me. And he treated me like somebody who had something important to say." He looks up at me, at all of us. "And, after that, the rest was … easy."
"Sometimes I miss him," Dylan says, his voice quiet, almost reluctant. "You know? Even when I think back to what he did to me, to all of us, I still miss him." He smiles. "I know that's fucked up, but …"
"Something else we can never tell our parents," Carter answers.
"I mean, guys like that, we're supposed to run away, right?" Eric volunteers. "Stranger danger, and all that shit. Run and go tell your parents, or a teacher, or somebody."
"But we never did. He knew we wouldn't, somehow," Dylan adds. He chuckles. "We sure are a fucked-up little bunch of assholes, aren't we?"
Carter opens his mouth to say something, thinks better of it, stays silent. I glance at him in the dim orange glow. Tom's the prettiest of us, but there's something about Carter that I respond to. He's about my age, I think, maybe a few years older. I don't know where he sits in this strange and sordid hierarchy. There's a maturity there, a quiet strength.
"His special gift," Will says. "I wonder sometimes if he was even aware of it. It just seemed … natural, I guess. Like breathing, or eating. It's just who he was."
Later, Carter and I find ourselves down on the dock, looking out onto the quiet waters of the lake. Some of the guys have gone to bed, but sleep eludes me, even though it's almost one o'clock in the morning. The evening is still warm, but there's a slight chill in the air; overhead, stars glitter and burn in the sky. My head is a little buzzy with the beer, but I'm not drunk.
Am I here by accident, with Carter? He'd stood up at one point during our talking and had struck out for the lake. I looked around at the rest of the boys; Jake nodded to me, slightly. Go ahead. It's okay.
I don't know what I want, don't quite know why I'm here, sitting next to Carter. Tom had alluded to rules, but I think he was just kidding. Nobody's flashed a piece of paper in front of my face, but I think I sense what is and what is not allowed here. This, though … it could go either way.
"I'm glad I came," I say, just to break the ice. "I think."
Carter chuckles. "I know. It's hard, the first time, to tell your story."
"I don't know if I really feel better, or any different, you know."
"You may not. No promises. Just a group of people who understand what you went through."
"I'm seeing somebody," I murmur. "A doctor, I mean. A therapist." I'm not sure why I have to clarify my comment … but I do.
"We all are, I think. Well, I am, at least."
"Only because my parents want me to," I add.
"Because they don't want to have to listen to it. Not really. I mean, they say they care, and they do, but only up to a point, because sometimes I wonder if they really do understand why we did it. And that scares the fuck out of them."
"That we wanted to do it. That we were okay with. Maybe more than okay."
"Yeah. And -"
I wait for him to finish the rest of his sentence. He doesn't. I wait some more. "And?"
He sighs. "Nothing."
He looks at me, looks away, picks at the wood decking of the dock. "I don't want you to hate me, Eli." His voice, now, is very small, almost not there, thin and breathy, as if he has to say what he's saying but doesn't want me to hear it, or wants me to misunderstand it.
"Hate you? Why would I hate you, Carter? We're all kinda on the same page with this, right?"
Carter smiles. "Yeah … but maybe I've read the next chapter or two."
"I'm … not sure what you mean."
He chuckles. "Jeez, Eli - you started this metaphor."
I make some kind of gesture, wait for him to get on with it.
His smile fades. "You remember what George said, earlier? About missing Simon?"
"Yeah. I … kinda knew what he meant."
"I did, too. We all did. But, there's something else. Maybe it's only something I've experienced, but it's there."
"When you realized that Simon was leading you in a certain direction, how did you feel? Were you scared? Surprised? Excited?"
"Mmm … maybe all three."
Carter nods. "Yeah. Me, too. But there was something else that I felt when I understood what he wanted. I … think I wanted the same thing."
"Well, yeah, I -" But Carter shakes his head.
"No. What I mean is … I think I might be somewhat like Simon. Maybe a lot like Simon."
I don't know what he means, not at first … and then, I do. "You're kidding."
"I wish I were, but I'm not."
"Fuck, Carter …"
"I know." He looks away, unable to meet my eyes. "Before I met Simon, I was in the Boy Scouts. Did you know that?" I shake my head; he continues. "Working my way up to Eagle. I loved it. I really wanted it to happen. And, of course, in Scouts, you're always working with younger boys, teaching them things, showing them what it can be for them. And, everything was fine, until …"
"Until you met Simon," I whisper, unwilling to see where this thing is going, because I know - I know - where it's going, and I don't want that to be what I remember most about Carter.
"Yeah. Some little voice deep down inside of me kept whispering that this is what I had the potential to become. Another Simon. It always amazed me to see how Simon could just worm his way inside your brain, say everything that you ever wanted to hear, be the friend you always thought you wanted. And I looked back at the relationships with some of the younger boys that I knew, boys eleven, twelve, thirteen … and I could see the same things at work inside me."
I am stunned into silence. I don't know what to say. I don't know if there's anything I can say to make this thing better.
Carter glances at me, looks away, lets loose with a laugh that borders on a whimper. "Jesus, Eli - say something. Anything."
I open my mouth, close it, open it again. "But, you've never …"
"No," he answers. "Not … not yet."
"But you think you might."
He shrugs. "I don't know, Eli. I really don't. I'm afraid to be around them, now. I'm afraid of what I might do to them. And I hate that more than anything. I don't want to hurt them. I really don't. I just … it's just there, like some kind of cloud, all these possibilities, all these things I could do and say. And I … I think that I could get away with it. Like Simon did." He pauses, then goes on. "My parents were shocked when I just quit scouting. They couldn't understand it, and I couldn't tell them the real reason."
"He didn't, though. Not in the end. Get away with it, I mean."
"But he could have. Except for somebody stealing that stupid tablet, going through it, finding all of those pictures and videos. He would have moved on to somebody else after you, and somebody after that."
"I know," I whisper. "I know."
We fall silent as I try to digest this news. I want to cry.
"I told you that you would hate me," Carter finally says.
"I don't hate you, Carter. Seriously."
He glances at me, again, looks away, again. "Thanks."
Another bit of silence stretches between us.
"Can I ask you something, Eli?"
I smile. "You can ask me anything, Carter. You know that. That's one of the rules." Does he remember?
He does. He chuckles. "Okay. I will. Why did you follow me down here, Eli? From the campfire?"
And, here it is. "Because I wanted to talk to you."
I dissemble. "Well, I have a … procedural question."
A little half-smile ghosts his lips. "Okay …"
"Do the guys … I mean, does anyone … well, is anyone involved with anybody else, here?" I flush with the shame of asking it, am glad that he cannot see my face.
"Is anyone seeing anybody? Is that what you're asking?" He grins at me. "Anybody in particular you're thinking about?"
"Yes. And … yes."
Carter makes a face, thinking. "Well … it's something we don't typically ask. I mean, it's not against the rules or anything, but … well, nobody can stop you if you want to pursue something. I think Tom and Marcus might be a thing, but I've never asked." He favors me with a side glance. "You know that Jake likes you, by the way."
"I know." I tell him how I'd misjudged him that first time, when I'd thought he was making a pass at me. "He's … not my type," I add, carefully.
"But, then …?" And then I see him figure it out. "Oh. I see."
"Why? Are you sorry that you told me, or are you sorry that I just told you that I might be a monster?"
"You don't know that, Carter."
"No. I guess I don't."
"If you had somebody …" I try to keep the desperation out of my voice.
"I don't know, Eli. I'm not sure that it'll make a difference. Simon probably had somebody in his life at some point, too."
"Have you ever …?"
"No. Only Simon. You?"
"Yeah. I mean, only Simon."
"So, you don't know, either. About being in a relationship."
"No, I guess not, Carter. But I know I want to try."
"With me? Knowing what you know?"
"Look, if you're not interested, just tell me, and I'll go away."
"I didn't say I wasn't interested, Eli."
We look at each other. "Can I kiss you?" Carter asks.
He leans forward. I lean forward. Our mouths meet, and it's almost chaste, at first, the driest tapping of lip against lip. But then something takes me, takes him, and he cradles the back of my head as he slips his tongue past my teeth. I reach out, put a hand on his thigh, feel the muscles twist and tighten underneath my palm … but something tells me not to do anything else. He's not ready, I understand. For that matter, I'm not sure that I'm ready. Each of us has something in common, something we cannot speak about to anybody but our group, and our experiences with Simon will forever color how we go forward, with other people. With each other, if we're lucky.
Finally, we break apart.
"That was nice," Carter says.
"Yes, it was."
"He never kissed me, you know."
I think back on all of it. "I just realized that he never kissed me, either."
"I think it would have turned it into something else, if he had. Something real, and he couldn't handle that. Most of the time, he just … well, he just wanted to get down to business. I don't think he ever really loved any of us, or even cared to."
"We just thought he did."
"Well, of course, right? I mean, if you let someone do … that to you, it has to mean something, right? Except that it didn't, in the end."
"It doesn't have to be this way, Carter."
"I know that." He sighs. "Look, can I … think about this, Eli? I mean, I'm not saying no, I'm just saying that I need to know that this is what I want before I commit to it." He chuckles. "'It isn't you, it's me' … isn't that what everybody says? Except I'm not breaking up with you. I just …"
"I understand, Carter."
"And I'm talking too much. I know." He stands up, reaches out a hand to help me up. Side by side, together, silently, we walk up to the cabin.
I wake up the next day to bright sunlight filling the cabin. I sit up in bed, letting the sheet fall down into my lap, look around, grinding sleep out of my eyes with my knuckles. I seem to be the last one to get up; all the other beds are empty, still rumpled and unmade. I reach for my phone, tap it. 9:37, it tells me.
Shit. I hope I haven't missed breakfast.
I slip out of bed, stand up, pull on my shorts from yesterday over my boxers, as well as the shirt … but it reeks of smoke and I think to reach for another one, but I should really take a shower first, because I'm sure I reek of smoke, as well, from that damned campfire. I take the shirt off, drop it on the floor.
But hunger triumphs and I slip on my sandals, hoping that the guys don't have a no shirt, no service rule, and make my way towards the kitchen.
Which is also empty when I step into it. I can see the pile of unwashed dishes stacked by the sink, wonder if I am the one tasked with washing them.
But where the fuck is everybody? Did I miss the rapture?
I console myself with a toasted bagel smeared with cream cheese and a cup of coffee which, luckily, is still hot. While I sit and eat, I scroll through my phone. Not much: Barbara, wondering if I can take a shift for later today (probably not, Barbara, but thanks for asking) … my parents, hoping that things are okay, which is shorthand for what are you up to, Eli? Inquiring minds want to know.
I don't want to deal with them right now - Barbara or my parents - and I don't want to pay attention to my phone, so I just sit back and think about last night on the dock, and Carter, and the kiss, and wonder if any of this is going to lead anywhere or am I just wasting my time?
Idiot, I tell myself. He's not interested.
I get up, swallow the last bit of bagel, top off my coffee, walk out onto the porch that runs along the back of the cabin, looking down to the lake. I ease myself into an Adirondack chair and nurse my coffee. Today's Sunday, presumably the last day of this little shindig, and I wonder where it goes from here when we all disperse. Jake, of course, has to take me back to the city; will he show up again, at the coffeeshop? Will he want some kind of friendship out of this, some shared communion of souls, those of us who belonged to the cult of Simon? Do I want that to be the link between us? I am sick and tired of thinking about Simon.
But I do like these people. Above and beyond what - who - connects us, there is the possibility of real friendship, something I'm not sure I've ever enjoyed. I've been shuffled from school to school my entire life, never able to form anything lasting, platonically or romantically. Was that a deliberate choice by my parents? Were they afraid of sharing me with others? I cannot believe that, but I don't think that this nomadic kind of education has done me much good.
It certainly made it easier for Simon to slip in past the gates, the fox - red hair and all - in the henhouse, the wolf in the fold.
Sometimes, in the deepest part of the night, I dream of Simon, of being with him, of laying beside him in his bed, or bent double beneath him, or on top, pinned to him, rendered incapable of speech by the power of our exertions, all thought driven from me, responding purely on the most basic and primal of levels.
Like Dylan, I miss him, hate myself for being able to think that.
I wonder what it's like for him, now, in that place. All of the others must know why he's there, what he's done to join their ranks. Seducer of youth, thief of innocence and purity, molester of children.
But we were never that pure and innocent, none of us. There is, in each of us, a dark twin, who wanted without boundaries what Simon offered us, the carnal and the platonic, all at once, body and soul. And I can't even imagine what it means to be Carter, to know that you might be cut from the same mold as Simon, have it within your power to carry on that terrible curse, to inflict it upon another generation.
I had known none of that when I followed him down to the lake last night. I wanted only what I saw, a beautiful young man who felt the same things that I did, had experienced the same things I had experienced, and I wanted to see if anything could be built upon that. He was nearly my own age, a proper companion, not a man nearing forty.
And now? I don't know.
Idiot, I tell myself again, actually thump the side of my head with a finger for emphasis.
I bring the lukewarm cup of coffee to my lips, start to sip, when there is, like a clap of thunder, a loud bray of sound from somewhere behind me, startling me. I fumble the coffee; most of it lands with a slurp in my crotch. Luckily, it's cool enough that I don't suffer anything more than the embarrassment of it.
"Shit," I mutter, and "What the fuck was that?"
I stand up, toss the rest of the coffee over the rail, resist the temptation to toss the cup as well, take it back to the kitchen, place it in the pile of abandoned crockery, go to the front of the cabin, look out.
"What the fuck?" I repeat.
For standing there, in a line, are all of them, dressed in some kind of weird green shirts with orange neckerchiefs, a kind of Scout's uniform I've never seen before. Moreover, they're armed with trumpets and drums, some kind of makeshift tattoo. The green shirts seem tantalizingly familiar, but I can't figure out why.
I step out into the dog-trot. "Where the hell have you guys been?"
Carter steps out from the line of boys, followed by Jake. I start walking towards them; we meet halfway.
"You're out of uniform, Eli," Carter says, but he's smiling.
"Uniform? But I …"
Jake smiles as well. "He's joking. We've, uh … well, we've been talking. About you."
Jake glances at Carter, then looks at me. "Have you had a good time, this weekend?"
Have I? It's been an eye-opener, but maybe that's not so bad. "It was good. I think. I'm glad I came with you."
"Well, I'm glad you did, too. Look, I know it wasn't exactly what you expected, but … well, we'd like you to be a part of this. A part of us."
Carter nods. "I mean, you have to, right? Guy who put Simon where he needed to be, the -"
"I didn't really do that," I interject.
"Yeah, but it stopped with you."
Jake takes over. "What Carter's trying to say is that you belong here. If you want to."
I know what I really want, but if being around Carter means being a part of this group, I can live with it. I nod.
"Good," Carter says. "I was hoping you would say yes."
I was hoping you would say yes, too, I think.
Carter goes on. "We, uh … well, we don't have any kind of initiation -"
"- because you've already kinda gone through it," Jake tosses in.
Carter smiles. "- but we do have something for you." He tugs on his shirt, "One of these."
I grin. "That shirt, though …" Something I would never wear, but I know I've seen it before, in some other context.
Carter gets a funny look on his face, glances at Jake, then back at me. "You don't remember?"
Remember what? And then, I do.
We all laughed about it, that day, when he showed up in that ridiculous shirt, along with baggy trousers and a slouchy kind of hat and the orange scarf tied loosely around his neck … in complete contrast to the impeccably-dressed man we were used to.
"Uh … Mr. F …?" Mallory Watson piped up, "You need to do some laundry, maybe?"
He laughed, along with the rest of us. "You don't like it? I wore it especially for you."
I remembered that, because he looked directly at me when he said it. He continued speaking.
"No, my lovelies … I wore it for a reason. I'm going to have you read something special today, something from one of my favorite authors, somebody I hope you come to appreciate as much as I do."
And, thus, we were introduced to Whitman … and the message contained there in his poetry, however subtle. Those of us who wanted to understand it, did. He was a man who loved men. Boys, perhaps, those young unfortunates, broken by war, a nation's flower, ruined too soon … and Whitman, there in the hospital, tending to them, and falling, falling, falling in love.
Nobody could really complain about reading him; he was too important to ignore … and if you chose to ignore the subtext, it was still great poetry.
And if you chose to embrace the subtext, well …
I did. He knew that I would.
We were already scheduled to meet that day, at his place. I had adopted the habit, after school, of spending a few hours with Simon, at his apartment, before going home. That habit had crept up on me slowly, insidiously, and I had not minded it; the time spent with Simon was precious. It had seemed strange, at first, to be with my teacher in his apartment, alone, but after a short while I got used to it, even liked it. I liked the secrecy of it, the intimacy of it. We talked about anything and everything, and nothing I said ever seemed childish or absurd to him. In hindsight, of course, I suppose I could have said anything and he would have excused it, given what he knew would take place.
It was Simon's habit, after a long day of teaching, to unwind with a glass of wine or two. He always had me fetch it for him, something I did not mind doing.
This day, though, from the living room, his voice called out. "And make one for yourself, too, Eli."
"Oh! Well, I'm not sure that's a good idea, Simon." He had bade me call him Simon early on in our … well, relationship seemed too strong, perhaps. Friendship? Acquaintance? No matter.
I could hear his answering laugh. "Eli, if you can't handle a glass of wine at this point, you're a lost cause."
"First beer, then wine," I said. "What's next?"
"Why, heroin, of course. What else?"
I chuckled, drew out another glass from the cabinet, gave myself a smallish splash of the wine, nothing too much, nothing my parents might detect when I got home later today.
"And bring the bottle with you!"
Well, okay, I thought. I knew I wasn't going to help him finish it, but I could certainly walk home if I needed to; our places were only about a mile apart from each other. I stuck the bottle under one arm, picked up the two glasses, shouldered my way backwards through the door and pivoted into the living room … and stopped.
Simon was there, on the couch, leaning back, staring at me. He was still wearing the shirt from today, that gaudy, turquoise thing. It was unbuttoned and fanned out on either side of his torso like wings.
And that was all that he was wearing.
I remember staring at his body, his man's body, the body of a man of a certain age, but still supple, still muscular, thin and wiry, dusted with copper hair, dappled with freckles. I remember staring there, at the middle of him; he was already half-aroused, and it lay there on his thigh like a beached sea creature, recumbent in its bed of neatly-cropped orange hair, one hand curled there, next to it, as if displaying it.
"Simon …" I whispered.
"Eli …" he answered, his voice calm and eerie and quiet, in the shadowed half-light of the room.
"I …" didn't know what else to say, what else to do.
He let that hang there for a few seconds, spread his legs apart, propped one up on the coffee table, allowing me a glimpse into the shadowed recesses between his legs.
"Did you enjoy today's lesson, Eli?"
"I … I did." My heart pounded in my chest and I felt light-headed. And - damn him - I felt myself tightening down there, responding to him, further confirmation of a series of disquieting thoughts I had been feeling lately, even before Simon. But also because of him.
"Did you understand today's lesson, Eli?"
"I … yes, I think so."
"Yes. Of course you did. You're a smart boy, Eli. Not many boys would understand - or even want to understand - what I was trying to teach them. I knew you would. From that first day, I knew that about you."
And I drank it all in, the praise, the way he set me apart from the others, the trust he was ready to give to me.
"Yes. Thank you, Simon." I remembered setting the full glasses of wine down upon the nearest table, along with the half-full bottle of wine. I took a step towards him, then another.
"You're welcome. And, now … why don't you come and show me exactly what you learned today?'
And I did.
Carter continues to speak. "Dylan happened to mention it, in his story, when it was his turn … and then we all remembered."
Marcus chuckles. "A little wine, a little Whitman, a fancy shirt … and then you're dropping your panties for the man."
George makes a noise in his throat. "It's not funny, Marcus."
"Didn't say it was, George." Reminding George, of course, that it was not him whom Simon had suborned.
Carter sighs. "Guys, c'mon." He turns to me. "And, thus, the shirt. He always seemed to know when it was time to wear the shirt. He always knew when we had finally gotten to the place he'd been taking us to all along."
I remember clearly that first time, kneeling there between his outstretched legs, feeling his hands in my hair, hearing the sounds he made as I took him into my mouth, holding him there, getting used to it, to the thing I now was. It was all that we did that day, but it was enough, was the roller coaster cresting that first hill and plunging down, down, down.
Carter looks me up and down. "Seems to me that you do need a shirt, Eli."
I smile. "Yes, I do."
Carter gives it to me, the bundle, pinned together. I hold it in my left arm. "Thank you."
To my surprise, Carter leans forward, stretches his arms out, and I fall into them. I am dimly aware of Jake, in my peripheral vision, nodding to the line of boys behind him, then turning back to look at me.
Abruptly, there is the blare of noise again, trumpets and drums … and it sounds exactly like one would expect it to sound: the sound of an elephant getting run over by a freight train. I laugh at the absurdity of it as Carter cradles me in his arms.
Over the noise, Carter whispers into my ear. "Yes, Eli. Yes. I want this. I promise you that I will try. I will try."
Carter, not Jake, ends up taking me home.
Jake and I look at each other in the cabin as we pack.
"He -" I start. Then "I -"
Jake smiles and shakes his head. "It's okay, Eli. It really is."
I wonder how much Jake knows about Carter, about the other secret buried deep inside him.
"It was you, wasn't it?" I ask, later. Jake and I are standing by Carter's car, waiting for him to pack. "You took Simon's tablet."
"Well, I didn't take it, exactly," Jake answers. "I … well, it needed an important upgrade."
My mouth quirks. "Did anyone else's tablet need this important upgrade?"
Jake doesn't answer, just looks at me calmly.
"You knew what was on it," I persist.
"Maybe. I didn't know for sure. I didn't think anyone would be that stupid."
"Did you look at the files?"
"Yes. Of course."
"All of them?"
"Yes, Eli. All of them."
"You didn't have to. Just enough to know …"
"But I wanted to know who all he'd gone after. It was … important to me that I know. I wanted to give everybody an equal chance."
He frowns. "Are you angry at me, Eli? For doing what I did? Are you really angry that I managed to stop him?"
"But you stole from him. That's wrong, too."
"Well, there's wrong and then there's wrong. Stealing is bad, but not compared to raping underage boys. It's all relative."
"I don't know, Jake. I … somebody would have said something."
"But nobody ever did. I never did, and I should have. I could have stopped all of this then and there. But none of us ever said anything, or did anything. He would have just kept going. You know that."
"It … wasn't that bad, really."
"Spoken like a true victim. Must have been my fault, I guess." He shrugs. "Tell that to Alex. Tell that to George."
I can't answer that. Jake and I look at each other.
"Why do you think we did it?" I ask, finally. "Why did we give him what he wanted?"
"Because he gave us what we wanted."
"Which was …?"
Jake shrugs. "Attention. Meaning. He made us feel important, and alive, and that we had something to say. And … well, the rest of it? I don't know. It's … well, it's what we all are, you know? We'd been thinking about it for so long that when it finally got around to it … when we understood where it was going … it was … well, it was okay. Not that bad, as you might say." He sighs. "Simon gave us space to understand this thing, maybe when our parents would not, or could not."
"Was that true for Alex?"
"I don't know. I never knew him. George says that he pretty much knew Alex was gay, but … well, I've met George's parents and they're …" His voice trails off.
"Very strict. Get-out-of-my-house-if-you're-gay strict. Alex knew that he couldn't let anyone know how he felt."
"And, when Alex …" I can't bring myself to say the rest of it. I let it hang there, for a long moment.
Jake's mouth quirks. "Killed himself? Is that what you're trying to say?"
I nod; Jake goes on. "It happened during the trial, actually. Your trial. Nobody's name came out, of course, except for Simon's, but Alex's parents knew that Simon was one of his teachers, and they put two and two together and confronted their son. And the rest is history."
"So, if there was never a trial …"
Jake looks at me, shakes his head. "Don't blame yourself, Eli. I don't, and I doubt that George does. I blame his parents. They didn't have to be absolute shits about it, but they were. And now their son is dead."
"Fuck …" I murmured. "This whole thing, it's … fucked up. It's just fucked up."
"Of course it is. In the end, Simon was wrong to do what he did. It doesn't matter that he talked us into it, it doesn't matter that we believed him, it doesn't matter even if we enjoyed it. He had no right to do that to any of us. Which is why I did what I did. He had to be stopped."
"I know, I know. I understand why you did it. But, this? The get-together?"
"I don't know. It was just an idea, a way for all of us to meet and try to understand what happened to each of us, to let everyone know that they're not alone, that there are other people who understand." He stops, looks away for a bit, then back to me. "And, sure … maybe it helps me feel better about myself, about what I could have done but didn't."
I smile. "Is it helping?"
Jake smiles back. "Some."
He - Simon - thought of us as birds. That's one of the things I remember from the trial. They were all there on his tablet, the files, innocuous names for them, for us, names that no one would think twice about, if one were not looking for anything in particular. Anything like that.
I remember, in his house, that little bungalow, of the art on the walls, the books on the shelves, the little pieces of statuary here and there, on tables, on mantels. They stared up at me, back at me, down at me from all corners of that house, eyes unnaturally bright and reptilian, their bodies bright or drab with feathers.
There was one in particular that hung right above his bed, on a thread of nearly-invisible fishing line: an owl, mysterious, saturnine, predatory. I remembered looking up at it, while Simon and I were at work with each other in that room, remembered watching it twirl and spin, looking down upon me, as I fought to contain Simon's desire within me.
Swallows and swifts, we were to him. Wrens and sparrows.
I, I remember, was a sparrow.
Carter and I stare at each other in the confined space of his car.
"I would ask you up, but …" I offer.
Carter smiles. "A little too soon for that, maybe …"
A promise in that. "Yeah, I know," I respond. I grin. "Can I kiss you?"
A sly grin. "Of course."
We kiss, and there's something greater in it this time, some other threshold being crossed. Carter slips a hand inside my shirt, flicks a hand across my nipple, testing its hardness. I would, right now, do anything he asks of me. I respond by daring my own bit of reconnaissance, slip a hand under his shirt, let it come to rest on his taut, flat belly, let it rise and fall in concert with his breathing. There is a promise, there, too, in his body, in its warmth and its gentle motions.
The light of a passing car washes over us, breaking us apart.
"Well …" he whispers.
I brush a finger along his brow, down one cheek, across the bow of his mouth.
"Will you tell them?" he asks. "About this weekend?"
Will I? They know one thing about me, but they don't know the most important thing about me. What can I tell them that would make any sense?
But, Carter. Only this makes sense. Only he makes sense.
And if what I feel for him can - for this brief moment - quiet the monster coiled within him, I will take that moment and make it last for as long as I am able.
"I will try," I promise.
"That's all I want," he answers. "That's all anyone can want."
After he leaves, I step up onto the front porch of our house, watching the taillights of his car recede into the distance, but I don't go in, not yet. I have one more thing I have to do. I crouch down, undo the vermilion kerchief around my neck, start fumbling with the buttons of the green shirt. I fold them, stuff them into the backpack - I will have to think of a place to hide them later - and draw out another shirt, pull it on over my head, stand up.
Now, I'm ready to go inside, ready for my parents and for the fusillade of questions they will have for me, the what and the who and the where.
The why - the thing contained within the green shirt - will have to wait until later.
If ever at all.
This story is part of the 2019 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: Scouting for Boys". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 8 March to 29 March 2019 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.
The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]
* Some browsers may require a right click instead