TJ and Dexter were playing hockey on the lake the day Dexter's father died. They were coming off the ice when TJ saw his own father trudging toward them over the naked snow.
“I got some bad news for you, son,” he said to Dexter. At that moment, TJ knew... his Dad had never called Dex 'son' before.
“How did it happen,” Dex asked, his voice and face completely blank.
“Came off the road in his truck.”
“Did he suffer?” TJ heard his voice, and realised he sounded kinda vicious. His Dad flashed him a warning look, shook his head. 'Not now, we'll talk later' he was saying with his eyes. TJ swallowed, glanced back his apology. “Sorry, Dad... I mean... was it quick?”
“I dunno, I only just heard.” He looked back at Dex, with a sad face. “I'm sorry, kid,” he said, sounding truly regretful. He stepped forward, put his arms stiffly around him, and petted his back. “You come on home with us now, son.”
It was a weird feeling, crunching back through the crisp snow, hockey sticks and skates slung over their backs. TJ kept looking at his friend, sideways, wondering how he was feeling, but Dexter showed nothing. Of course, TJ was used to that. Dexter was very good at hiding his feelings... TJ was probably the only person who got anywhere close to knowing what Dexter felt about anything at all.
If this had happened years ago, he thought, Dexter could have come to live with them then, and things would have been completely different. When he was seven, when he was twelve, fourteen even, he'd wanted nothing in the world so much as for Dexter to come and live with them. He used to dream up ways in which they could rescue Dexter from his father... and when he started to realise just how really, really, really bad things were, he hated the man enough that he even began planning his murder. Just in his head, because he knew you couldn't really kill people... but it felt so real, and some nights he couldn't get to sleep for thinking about all the ways he'd like the man to die. He'd written short stories about it, only he'd changed the name of the bad man. One day, he thought, he was gonna write a book.
Then, of course, the 'thing' had happened between Dex and him, and though they were still best friends it was weird, because the 'thing' kept happening. Yeah, he still wanted Dexter to move in with him, he'd love it, but he wasn't sure how long they could keep their secret if he did. Even as things were, there had been a few close calls... when they'd fall asleep without meaning too, and then Dex would have to climb out the window in the morning, or sneak to the spare room quietly, and try not to wake anyone up.
When they got back to the house, Mrs Murphy was sitting next to TJ's Mom, and mopping her eyes. “Oh, honey,” she said to Dex, “I'm so sorry. Nobody deserves to die like that.”
“Like what?” TJ couldn't stop himself. Images flashed through his head... murders he had indulged in over the years, his imagination growing increasingly violent as he got older and angrier, and crueller. He knew it had been a traffic accident, but still... Perhaps someone had hired thugs to come round and beat him to death with baseball bats. Maybe they'd driven spikes into the wood, long nails, maybe... Maybe someone had pushed him under a train, and he'd been dragged along under its wheels. (No, that would be too quick.) Maybe someone had doused him with petrol and set him on fire...
As it turned out, the last one was nearly the truth, though they didn't tell him till later. Mom pulled him out of the room, and talked to him in the backyard. “Looks like he was drunk driving or something,” she said quietly. “Lost control on the ice, went off the side of the road. You know how it happens sometimes. Anyway, the gas tank caught fire, and the whole thing exploded.”
“Did he suffer?” This time he didn't care how vicious he sounded. His mother looked at him, and smiled. She was a kind woman, but she loved Dexter. TJ didn't know how much she knew, but she knew enough.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, he did.”
“Good,” TJ replied. And that was all they said about it.
Later on, Dexter managed to get him alone. “I gotta get some stuff from the house. I don't want anyone else to go in there... can you come with me?”
“'Cause...” Dexter's face went suddenly tight, and his eyes went shiny. “'Cause I don't want to go in there alone.”
TJ smoothed his hand on Dexter's back, in slow comforting circles. “Yeah, Dex, anything you need.”
“You won't...” Dexter swallowed. “If you see anything you don't like, you won't hate me?”
How could TJ ever hate Dexter? How could Dexter even think it? “Don't worry, buddy,” TJ said, “it's not your fault.” Dexter looked at him, and gave a tiny shake of his head, like he couldn't help it. Like he didn't believe him.
TJ was very good at persuading his Mom to let him have his own way. She was a bit reluctant at first to let him and Dexter out of her sight, but TJ did that thing with his eyes that Dexter thought was so hilarious and Mom fell for every time. “You make yourself look like a baby kitten,” Dex said once, “or a bunny rabbit, you gotta teach me how you do that...” “Dunno,” TJ replied, smugly. “I'm just gifted I guess.” “You gotta try it out on girls,” Dex was trying not to laugh. “You know, like a Jedi knight...” TJ fixed Dex with 'the look', and pretended he was a girl.
Teej hadn't been to Dexter's place for years. There was a time... maybe six months, when he used to come round sometimes, climb in Dexter's window and they'd chat about their day, but Dexter had never seemed real comfortable with that. One night when TJ climbed in Dexter started crying, and told him not to come back. TJ had been really upset about that one, couldn't figure out what he'd done, or why Dexter didn't want to be his friend any more. But the next day at school Dexter had been fine with him, and when TJ asked what was going on, Dexter pretended not to hear.
Then, of course, he'd walked in the back door, a year or two later, and seen what was really going on. And though he didn't quite know what it meant at the time, he knew well enough that he should turn around, and run away.
If he'd had any sense, or any balls at all, he'd have gone straight to the police, but then... he had a horrible feeling that one of the men was an actual cop. So in the end, he buried it, and tried to pretend it hadn't happened.
He hadn't been in Dexter's house since that day.
The place was smaller than he remembered, and it smelled pretty bad. As they stepped across the threshold something crunched. Dexter was hunched up, and apologetic looking, and crying quietly. TJ hoped he wasn't crying for his father, because if he was, he'd want to scream. Pity the old bastard could only die once.
“Okay,” Dexter said, and squared his shoulders. “Okay,” he said again, louder, like he was gearing himself up for a big jump, or a snow trick. 'I can do this,' he seemed to be thinking.
“You can do this,” TJ said, and grinned. Dexter managed a grin back, and TJ knew he'd said the right thing.
“Okay...” Dexter knelt down, and started pulling up floorboards.
What the fuck? Somehow, TJ hadn't been expecting that.
“Is there anywhere we can have a fire,” Dexter asked, as the wood creaked. “'Cause I don't want anyone to see this stuff.”
“Er... yeah. We can go out to the dump, after dark. There won't be anyone there.”
“Good. Good...” Dexter was pulling out envelopes, and what looked like photo albums.
“What the hell is that stuff?” TJ knew he was being nosey, but he dropped to his knees, and reached out. Dexter flinched, and dropped the papers. He was shaking.
“Oh... shit.” TJ's whole body went cold. He'd known, probably the whole damn town guessed something, but... “Dexter, I'm sorry, I'm really, really sorry.”
“You're gonna hate me,” Dexter said, and hugged himself. “Oh, Jesus, Teej, you're gonna hate me.”
“No,” TJ said, “no,” even though the pictures made him sick. Good God, how old was Dexter in that one? He shouldn't even be looking at these. He put the album down. “I'm so sorry.”
“You might as well see the others,” Dexter said, bitterly. “Then you can make your mind up if you're still my friend.”
“I don't wanna see them.”
“Yeah?” Dexter was shouting. “Yeah, well what if I want you to?” TJ stared, shocked. Dexter pulled a grimace like his face was frozen, and stopped shouting. His voice drifted, and he looked away. “I wanted someone to know since I remember, and now you've seen 'em, and... I want you to know.”
“What the fuck for?”
“I want... I want...” He started crying. “I want someone to know. Tell me it wasn't my fault.”
TJ stared at his friend, then sat back on the filthy floor, cross-legged. Dexter wanted him to do this. Jesus.
He'd do anything for Dexter.
By the time he'd finished looking, Dexter had stopped crying. TJ reached out a hand, wrapped their fingers together. “Dex,” he said, quietly. “It wasn't your fault.” Dex nodded, then shook his head. He wasn't making eye contact, and he pulled his hand away.
“There's one more thing.”
What could be worse than that, TJ wondered, and stood. Dexter turned, walked to the stairs.
There were three bedrooms upstairs. Dexter jerked his thumb, toward the doors. “Dad's,” he said, “mine,” pointing to the room TJ remembered, “boyfriends,” he sneered. He opened the door to the boyfriends' room. “I'm kinda lucky,” he said. “'Cause I'm old and ugly, I ain't had to use this one much for a year or two.”
“You're sixteen,” TJ said, “that's not old. And you're not ugly.” Dexter laughed derisively. TJ knew that Dexter was down on his appearance. This was probably why. “Not lucky either,” TJ said, and pinched the bridge of his nose to stop the prickle in his eyes.
The room didn't look like it belonged in the same house. The bed was nice, the wallpaper was nice... the whole room was... nice. Nothing special, just nice. There was a mirror opposite the bed, and what looked like... TJ felt sick. Handcuffs. Dexter knelt mutely by the bed, and pulled more pictures from under the mattress. He dropped them on the bed, and walked to the window, turned his back on TJ, and covered his face with his hands. “Look,” he moaned through his fingers, then, “I'm sorry.”
“That...” TJ felt the room wobble, like he'd stepped onto a boat. “That's... that's us. That's me.”
“I'm sorry, I'm sorry.” Dexter was crying again. “I didn't mean to... when they took them, I didn't know.”
TJ sank on the bed, then sprang up when he remembered what it had been used for. He stumbled to the door, then turned, leaned on the wall, and slid down. He stared at the photos. Dexter and him, swimming, one summer, looking... happy. “Is that why...” he whispered, “is that why you stopped going swimming with me?”
“Is that why you wouldn't let me come visit you here?”
A huge wave of compassion and sorrow crashed over him. “Hey, Dex,” he said again, “it's not your fault. You were only a kid, and you were trying to protect me.”
“I was...” Dexter turned around, and he looked savage. “I was as bad as them. They made me talk about you.”
Oh, Jesus Christ.
“And yeah... yeah, you might as well know everything. I...”
Dex clenched his fist, and suddenly thumped himself on the head. “I kept one of the pictures, for a bit. Kept it under my pillow.”
“What?” TJ put a hand to his mouth, swallowed. He was gonna be sick. He rolled over onto his hands and knees, and threw up. Dexter laughed, like an old man, then started crying again.
“And now you hate me. Told you. I always knew you would.”
“Sorry about the floor,” TJ said, like an idiot, and got to his feet. He staggered, dizzy.
“Forget about it.”
TJ stared at his friend, and realised he had no idea what to say. After a long silence Dexter's body slumped, and he pushed his way through the door. TJ stuck an arm out to block his path. Dexter stopped, like the batteries had just died. His head drooped, and he closed his eyes.
“Dexter,” TJ said, voice trembling. “Don't get mad... I just gotta ask...”
“That picture you had... it was one of these? We were how old?”
“I think... er... ten? Yeah, we were ten or eleven in those pictures. It was the last time I went swimming with you, remember?”
“Yeah.” TJ swallowed. That's what he'd thought. “And you kept a copy?”
“Dexter... please... tell me you don't have a thing for little boys.”
Dexter's head snapped up, and he stared at him, face white, eyes blazing. “Hey,” he said, “no, I was only a kid when I had that photo. And I only had it because it was you, not because you were a kid.”
Dexter's mouth hung open. “I got rid of it,” he whispered. “I got rid of it for you. After our first time. So... so I wouldn't look at you like that.”
“Yeah, but... what does that mean?”
Dexter stared. For a moment TJ thought he might start crying again, so he wasn't prepared for the fist. He tried to back off, but the room was small, and he banged up against the wall again. He put his arms up in front of his face to protect himself, and after a minute it was over. Dexter was panting, and shaking, and... yeah. Yeah, he was crying again.
“I'm not like that,” he said, “I'm not like that. It's just because it was you. That's the only reason I kept it. Because it was you, and me, and we were smiling, and it was a happy day. It wasn't a little boy thing. I swear to God. It was just... it was you.”
TJ stepped up to him then, put his arms around him. “Dex,” he said, knowing how stupid it sounded, “Dex, it'll be all right.” He tried to kiss him, but Dex pushed him back, a look of sheer horror on his face. “Not here,” he said. “Please, not here.”
“I was just gonna kiss you.”
“Please, not here.”
In the end it was surprising how long paper took to burn. Dexter took each and every picture, tore them into tiny pieces, and fed them to the fire, but it still took a long time for the images to be utterly consumed. TJ put his arm around his friend. His heart was killing him. It hurt, physically hurt. Each breath, each heartbeat hurt. If he tried to tell someone, they'd think he was making it up, because heartache wasn't supposed to be a real pain after all. But it was real. And it really, really hurt. Kinda like when a cut went bad and septic, and it needed to be lanced to let all the goo out. Only you couldn't do that to your heart. You just had to let it hurt. He had no right to complain though. It had to be harder for Dexter. He wondered if there was any way either of them could scrub the pictures out of their heads. Probably not. And what about Dex? He'd had to live it.
Later as they trudged back through the streets together Dex sighed. “I'm not gonna sleep tonight.”
“Don't think I will either,” TJ said. He knew this feeling. Kinda itchy in his skull. He'd had a hell of a lot of sleepless nights over the years, worrying about Dex, and now that he'd seen all that... “You think it ever stops? I mean, feeling bad about bad stuff that happened?”
“What you got to feel bad about?” Dexter didn't say it maliciously, but TJ still winced.
“I kinda...” This was a hard confession to make. “I kinda hated our first time.”
“Yeah, I know.” Dexter looked down miserably. “I suck.”
“And... I wanted to tell you, but... I mean, it's all right now. I like it. But I felt kinda bad about being angry at you.”
“I was angry at me.”
“It's all right.” He cleared his throat. “And the other thing... I shoulda helped you, but I didn't.”
“You didn't know.”
“Yeah... I kinda did. I mean... I saw once. I mean... I came round after school, and I saw what they were doing to you.”
Dexter looked up at that, eyes wide in his white face. “Why... why didn't you say anything?”
“I didn't know what it was, not really... and by the time I did know, it was too late. Besides, one of them looked like a cop...”
“Was it a real uniform? 'Cause they might justa been playing dress up...”
Oh, God, enough already...
“I dunno. I was just scared they'd take you away.”
“And you knew that about me, and you didn't hate me?”
“I hated your Dad,” TJ felt it coil in him, like a steel spring. He'd never release it now. “He got off too easy.”
Dexter shrugged. “Can you believe I'm kinda sad about it? Him being dead, I mean.” TJ stared. There wasn't any answer to that. Dexter looked ashamed, then his face brightened. “Hey, I got something.”
“What you got?”
Dexter smiled, shyly, like he did that time he'd found the eagle's feather, and pulled out a little bag.
“I found my father's stash.”
“Oh, fuck, Dexter, that's drugs.”
“Yeah. I know. But, it'll help you sleep.”
“Oh.” He looked at the bag, interested despite himself. “It won't give us nightmares, will it?”
“Nah, that's what so cool about this one... knocks you right out.”
Dexter could do with a dreamless night, TJ thought. No pictures in his head. Hell, he could do with that too.
“Won't Mom notice?”
“Nah, she'll just think you're tired. It's been a bad day, so what's normal?”
“You can do your blue-eyed baby thing,” Dex flicked a grin at him, and TJ laughed. “And besides, this one here,” Dexter fished around in another pocket, “this one helps you wake up in the morning anyway. Nobody will know.”
“Christ, how much of that stuff did you find?”
“Should last us a bit.”
What the fuck? He knew Dexter took stuff sometimes, and he knew his father had been dealing, but... Fuck's sake. TJ didn't even know what this stuff was called.
“You don't have to,” Dexter sounded disappointed, like TJ was turning down a gift. “I just thought, you looked miserable, and...”
“It's okay,” TJ said, making his mind up. “I'll do it. Yeah, okay.”