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About seven weeks after Dexter's father died TJ's mother dragged him out of bed by the ear, like he was seven again, and trying to get out of going to school. And, actually, yeah, he'd been skipping school a lot, but he wasn't seven, and it wasn't like there was much school left, and... He was bigger than her for fuck's sake.

 

“What the hell...”

 

“Don't you use that language with me, young man,” she declared. He blinked, woozily. “Get up.” She put a hand between his shoulder blades and propelled him out the door, nudging him into a stumbling descent of the stairs. “Wash your face.”

 

“I'm tired...”

 

“Yeah, well, that's what drugs'll do to you.”

 

Shit. She knew. He blinked at her, and she narrowed her eyes. “Don't pull your innocent face on me,” she said. “I'm not stupid.”

 

Oh, crap. “Look... Mom, I'm sorry, but...”

 

“Yeah, yeah. Sorry, sorry. I get it, you're an idiot. We've all been sixteen, you know. Except your Dad, of course, and you wanna be glad he's been so busy. He finds out what's going on, and you're in big trouble, okay?”

 

“Er... okay...”

 

“For all I know, if he finds out, he'll kick Dexter out of the house. Is that what you want?”

 

Christ... “No,” he blurted out, shaking. “No.”

 

She nodded, briskly, and continued, prodding him in the chest, “let me tell you something, you don't got no excuse. That kid upstairs, Dexter? He's got a bit of an excuse. Not much of one, but a bit. And you're meant to be his friend. How are you gonna help him if you're wandering around stoned, or high as a kite?”

 

“Oh, shit...” Was it that obvious? “Mom, I didn't think...”

 

“No,” she sighed. “You didn't think.” She turned to the stove, put the kettle on. “Go wash up, then come back here, sit down, and we'll talk.”

 

When he got back there was a mug of coffee on the table, and a jug of orange juice... the good kind made from real oranges. He stared at it, entranced as the little bits of pulp floated in the glass.

 

“You're supposed to drink it, TJ,” she said, snapping him out of his reverie.

 

“Sorry,” he blinked. “Sorry Mom.”

 

“Stop saying sorry, and tell me what's going on.”

 

TJ poured himself a glass of juice, hand shaking a little. That was a good question. What was going on?

 

“Look,” she said gently, “did something happen?”

 

“Well,” TJ tried to make a joke of it, but it came out snippy instead. “Dex's Dad died.”

 

“I didn't think you liked the man.”

 

“Fucking hated him,” he scowled.

 

“Mind the language.”

 

TJ raised his chin, defiantly. “I fucking hated him.”

 

Mom stared at him for a moment, and her face went pale. “TJ,” she said, carefully, “I never thought... I mean...”

 

“What?”

 

“He never touched you, did he?” Her voice was clipped with fright.

 

“God no,” TJ laughed, and this must be his day for getting away with stuff, because normally she'd never let the blasphemy slip. “I never went round there, you know that.”

 

She put her hand to her heart, and closed her eyes. “Thank God,” she said. Of course, when she said it, it was a prayer. When he said it... well, it didn't mean much, because if there'd been a God then men like Dexter's Dad wouldn't exist. After a moment her breathing steadied, and she opened her eyes again, looked at him carefully. “So,” she asked. “What?”

 

Honestly? He couldn't tell her. She knew, she must have known, everyone knew that something wasn't right with that man, but nobody had saved Dexter. And he couldn't tell people what he'd seen, even if they weren't all a bunch of hypocritical bastards... bad enough Dexter'd had to live through that shit, without TJ talking about him behind his back.

 

Her brow puckered as she stared at him, concerned. “Did you see something,” she asked, “when you went round with Dex that time? Did you see something that upset you?”

 

Jesus. She could get inside his head now. How did she do that? He looked at her furtively, and saw from her face that she realised she'd just hit the nail on the head.

 

“I told you,” he floundered, trying to hold onto the lie. “I told you at the time. We just went to get his stuff... He didn't want to be by himself, that's all...”

 

“You were gone a long time, and you came back smelling of smoke.”

 

Oh... yeah. She wasn't stupid.

 

“You came back smelling of smoke,” she mused, putting the pieces together, “and you were out of it.” She closed her eyes, and shook her head. “God forgive me, but I'm an idiot. I thought you were tired. You were stoned, weren't you?” He said nothing, and she nodded, grimly, taking his silence as the confirmation it was. “Was that the first time?”

 

“Yeah,” he muttered.

 

“TJ, you know you can tell me anything...”

 

“No. No, I can't. Because you all knew. You knew about Dexter, and you did nothing about it.”

 

Mom sat back, blinking. For a moment her mouth moved, and no sound came out. She cleared her throat, and started again. “I'm sorry.”

 

“Yeah? Don't tell me. Tell him.” She said nothing, looking at her hands, laid flat against the kitchen table. TJ smiled, coldly. Score to Teej, he thought. She couldn't say sorry to Dexter, because then she'd have to admit that she'd betrayed him. “If it had been me,” he said, cruelly, pushing the point home, “you'd have done something. You let Dexter call you Mom, but you're not his Mom. You let it happen because he was someone else's son.” He watched intently for the pain that flickered across his mother's face. It didn't make him feel any better though, because while he knew what he said was true, at least a little bit, he also knew that his parents had done more for Dexter than anyone else in this whole stinking town.

 

“We called the police,” she whispered.

 

“Yeah? Ever stop to think the cops might know about it? And maybe some of them didn't care?”

 

There it was again, a look of pain and shock on her face. He smiled for a moment, then realised that the person he wanted to punish was dead, and this was his mother, sitting across from him, looking like he'd just stabbed her in the chest.

 

“Son?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I'm really sorry about... everything. But you gotta pull yourself together.”

 

“What for?”

 

“You wanted to go to college...”

 

TJ laughed. “What for?”

 

She leant her elbows on the table, and covered her face with her hands. “I am so sorry...” She took in a deep breath. “But you know you gotta be strong. You know I'll always be here for Dexter, but... I'm only his Mom. Or, I try to be his Mom. You're his brother. You're his friend. He needs you.”

 

Oh... Mom. All his anger bled away, leaving him feeling stunned, and blank. He shoved the heels of his hands in his eyes, scrubbed. Sighed and stood. Walked round the table, and leant over her. “I love you, Mom.”

 

“I know.” She leant her head backward, hooked her hand round his neck, looked up and smiled. “I know you do. You're a good boy.”

 

A drop of water fell on her face, and TJ noticed, absently, that he was crying. “No,” he said, “I'm really not.”

 

She scraped her chair back, and stood, up on tiptoe, tugging his head down so she could kiss his forehead. “You'll be fine. Just... get well. Let me help you, okay? Then we can help Dexter. We'll try and keep this from your Dad. Can you do that? Can you do that for Dexter?”

 

TJ leant his head against his mother's brow. He must be hot, because her forehead felt really cool.

 

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, Mom, I can.”

 

It was harder than he expected, particularly because Dexter was still taking the stuff, and treating him like shit because he wouldn't join him. Dad still didn't know, and thought TJ had come down with a really bad dose of flu or something. But then Dad was doing a lot of night shifts, so he didn't see Dexter carrying on at night, and he was asleep a lot during the day, so he didn't realise he was bumbling around the house like a zombie, and missing school. TJ was shocked. If that was the state he'd been in, no wonder his Mom freaked out.

 

The worst thing though was when Mom trusted him, and he let her down.

 

“Sweetheart,” she said, on the fifth day, “I gotta go to work. I'm real sorry, but you know I can't lose the job.”

 

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I know.”

 

“You'll be okay?”

 

“Yeah, 'course I will.” He believed it too.

 

“And look after Dexter. Don't let him get in trouble.”

 

“I'll look after him.”

 

“You know, don't let him go out by himself...”

 

“I know.” Dexter had been going out some nights to stock up, ever since his father's stash dwindled down to nothing. It was only now that TJ's head was clearing that he wondered how the hell Dexter had been paying for it. “I'll look after him.”

 

“Good lad,” she'd said, and kissed him, and gone to work.

 

So, the house was empty, and TJ had been clean for five days, and he was only feeling sick. It wasn't like he was addicted or anything. He'd been sick before. This wasn't any worse than the flu.

 

Dexter wandered downstairs about an hour later, and threw himself on the couch, stretching his legs out like he owned the place. He shifted on one buttock, and farted. A week ago, it woulda been funny as hell, but now, for some reason it really, really annoyed TJ.

 

“Hey, you're gonna break the springs,” he grouched, “that couch was expensive.” He wrinkled his nose. “And what have you been eating? Your ass stinks.”

 

Dexter rolled his eyes. “Who cares? You sound like an old woman.”

 

“Yeah, well, you look like a fucking junky, and you smell like a fucking skunk.”

 

“You're just pissed 'cause you're on the wagon. Who cares? It's not like anyone gives a damn.”

 

“My Mom gives a damn.”

 

“Your Mom doesn't even know.”

 

“That's what I've been trying to tell you, cheese for brains, she does know. She told me, five days ago. And if we don't sort ourselves out, my Dad'll figure it out eventually, and he'll kick us outta the house.” TJ kept it to himself that Dexter was the only one who was in danger of eviction. Besides, if his Dad did kick Dexter out, TJ was going with him. What Dexter didn't know wouldn't break his heart.

 

Dexter blinked slowly at TJ, and smiled. “Your Mom knows?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“And she didn't tell your Dad?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“And your Dad doesn't know?”

 

“Yeah.” Fuck's sake, had he been this stupid when he was taking the stuff?

 

“Cool.”

 

“Why's that cool?”

 

“'Cause you can have a little taste of it, and you know she won't bust you. And... even so, she mightn't figure it out anyway.”

 

Uh oh. TJ sat, carefully on the couch. That little bit of nausea and yearning he'd been walking around with was growing into a definite hunger, and his head was pounding. Dexter continued, like he knew he had him hooked. “When's she home tomorrow?”

 

“Ten.”

 

“If you're tired, you can just tell her I kept you up all night. She'll think what a good boy you were being, looking after me...”

 

Oh God. He was in trouble now. Dexter was starting to make sense...

 

“Go on, you know you want to.” Dexter grinned easily, like he was TJ's grandmother offering them an extra piece of chocolate cake, and TJ's heart lurched. He could feel himself folding. He'd already lost, he knew it. Dexter was happy, like he deserved to be after all these years, and... TJ kinda wanted to be happy too. He was sick to death of being sad all the damned time. He closed his eyes.

 

“Yeah,” he said, finally, with a wash of relief. “Okay... yeah.”

 

And this time was as good as the first time, only better, because he knew what to expect. About twenty minutes later, he was lying across the couch, head lolling back, dick standing up in his pants, wondering why he'd ever stopped, and hey... what the hell, he took another one. Who the fuck was counting anyway? So, after they'd blown each other, (and they must be high... they'd never done it in the living room before) it just made a lot of sense for them to go out and meet Dex's friends. And then... well, he'd never sniffed stuff before, but wow... that hit the back of his head but good, and the world was bright, and buzzing, and it was all so damned beautiful.

 

By the time the police picked them up they'd been gone for weeks.

 

Mom kept crying, and Dad wasn't talking, and all TJ could remember was Dex freaking out when the cops broke in, thinking it was the bad men, and then him freaking out too, because what the fuck, those guys were in uniform, and maybe they were playing dress up, or maybe they were the real cops, but you couldn't trust the cops, 'cause look what they'd done to Dexter. And then there had been a lot of fighting, and he thought he mighta screamed like a girl, and he'd bitten someone, and... after that he had no idea what had happened. And now his mouth was dry, and his eyes were sore, and he didn't know where Dex was. He wasn't quite sure what he was doing in the hospital either, but to be honest, he didn't care.

 

“Is Dex all right,” he managed, though his tongue had turned into sandpaper.

 

“He's fine, honey,” his mother said. Her voice sounded wet, and he couldn't look at her. She'd gotten paler, and lost weight. His father, standing at the window with his back to him, looked smaller somehow, with his hands in his pockets, and his shoulders slumped. “Dex is fine, love,” Mom continued. “He's just... he's on the other ward. They thought he could do with some quiet, that's all.”

 

“Will I see him soon?”

 

“Yeah,” she said. “When you're both better.”

 

“He's not coming back to our house,” his father finally spoke. “I know he's your friend, I know it's not his fault, but he's a bad influence all the same, and he's not coming back.”

 

“Then I'm not coming back either,” TJ said, and turned his face away.