TJ moved out the week after he turned eighteen. He loved his Mom, but he knew he'd broken her heart, and it hurt too much to see it everyday. So, yeah... he was selfish. But he couldn't help it. She said she'd forgiven him, and she said she'd forgiven Dexter, and maybe that was even true... but he could tell that she hadn't been able to forget it. And he couldn't forget it when they were in the room together, because sometimes when she looked at him, it was there behind her eyes.
He blamed the therapy, actually. Even though the only pictures they had of him as a kid were those really innocent ones at the lake, they seemed to think there must have been others, and that he and Dexter had got rid of the evidence. No matter how often TJ insisted that he hadn't been touched when he was little, nobody ever believed him. His mother came back from her therapy sessions with books about repressed memory syndrome, and sometimes she would get her courage up, and use some 'exercise' to try to get him to talk. He'd respond by ignoring her, pretending that he didn't know what she was doing, but sometimes, if he was feeling lousy enough, he'd slam out of the house, go find Dexter, and come back drunk. He tried not to do it too often, because Dex had a curfew, but... sometimes he just couldn't stay away. Besides, what gave anyone the right to keep them apart in the first place? Once, just for the sheer fucking hell of it he stayed out with Dex till seven in the morning, and came back home, as high as a kite. But there was Mom, pale, and pinch-faced, sitting on the stairs as he came in. He turned around, slammed the door, put his fist through the window, and ground his hand on the glass. Later, when he was coming down, he sat in A and E, staring at his bandaged hand and realised how damned lucky he was not to be back in the mental. “Sorry, Mom,” he said uselessly, like it made a difference.
She started going to church a lot more.
Sometimes he almost wondered if everyone was right, if he really had repressed his memories. Sometimes the therapist would ask him something, gently, and he'd have a flash of those pictures with Dexter in them, only his head painted them wrong, and it was him instead. And when Mom started coming to his sessions it was worse, because he'd get flustered, and she'd sit there looking sad, like she didn't blame him for lying, but was going to wait forever till he finally told the truth. And he was telling the truth, had been all along. Why could nobody believe that?
The third time his Mom came to one of his therapy sessions, he'd puked. Mrs Thoreau, the therapist ('call me Lucy') was trying to get him to 'open up' about his relationship with Dexter, and TJ was brick red and sweating with shame. He knew she was seeing Dexter too, and wondered what Dexter said about him. He wouldn't blame him for sharing any secrets... this woman had a way of crawling in under your skin. He'd already told her too much, but there was no way he was saying anything with his mother in the room.
“I see in my notes,” the woman said, “that the first time you remember a sexual encounter with Dexter you were... fourteen?” Next to him, Mom hitched in a breath, and TJ froze, not knowing where to look. He wouldn't have told the fucking woman if he'd known she'd ever tell his Mom.
“I'm sorry to ask you these questions,” Thoreau said, kindly, “but we really do need to explore these issues.”
“My Mom...” he stuttered, “my Mom's right here.”
“Yes,” the woman said. “As you know, I've been seeing her separately, as well as these joint sessions. And, I've explained this before, but just to clarify. After some discussion with colleagues we decided it would be helpful for your mother to attend these particular meetings.” Yeah... great. He remembered her telling him that... How many fucking colleagues had she talked about him with? “It's important that you realise your mother loves and supports you, no matter what.” Thoreau gave a warm and reassuring look to TJ's Mom, and TJ blinked. They were only trying to help. The woman continued. “Your Mom feels very badly about not being able to help you when you were a child, and she would have done, if she had known, but she's here for you now.”
“I am, son,” Mom said, and grasped his hand. “And there's nothing you can tell me that will make me stop loving you. You know that, don't you?” He looked at her small hand around his big one, fragile as a leaf, and wondered when she'd got so old. A silence stretched between them, and he didn't move, though he wanted to squeeze her fingers, to offer her even some mute reassurance. But he was rooted to his seat, and couldn't move.
“So,” Mrs Thoreau said, “you tell me you were fourteen.”
“It was just us,” TJ whispered. “Nobody else was there. Nobody made us.”
“Tell me about it.”
Mrs Thoreau nodded, that mild expression on her face. She never sighed, or looked cross, or surprised, or insulted. It might have helped if she had, because then he'd have felt like he was having a real conversation, instead of being a bug pinned to a board.
“So, what do you want to talk about?”
“I don't even want to be here,” he said, his voice growing stronger. “I'm only coming 'cause it was mandated. How many more of these do I got to come to anyway?”
“As many as you need,” Mrs Thoreau said. TJ closed his eyes, feeling his mother's hand still resting on his own. As many as he needed? What the hell did that mean?
Shit. It was like being in hospital. He was never getting out.
“Okay,” Mrs Thoreau was talking again. “We'll try some word association.” TJ laughed, eyes still shut. Blots, word association, hypnosis (which was a crock, they'd tried it, it didn't work, and people just had to be putting it on.) What a waste of fucking time.
“Mother,” she said.
Oh... oh... oh shit. Mom's hand flinched, and his eyes flew open, staring at Thoreau. All the blood drained from his face. What the hell had he just said...
“I mean... I mean...” And there it was, the bed they'd raped Dexter on, in that nice little room, with its nice little curtains, and its nice shiny mirror, and its cuffs.
“TJ,” Mom said, “TJ? It's all right.”
And under the mattress, pictures of him and Dexter that men had wanked off to, and... It was him on the bed.
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” he said, and stumbled to his feet, yanking his hand away from his Mom's. “That's not... it's not like that. That didn't happen.”
And then he'd puked.
When they got back home Mom started trying to talk about it again, and he ran to his room, and started throwing things. When there was nothing left to break he thumped the pillows and screamed into the mattress till his throat was raw, and then, when he'd calmed down he was appalled with himself, for being so selfish, and so damned stupid, and throwing a tantrum like a child. There was no way anyone was ever going to believe him now, when he said it didn't happen. Mom bought him up cookies and milk, like he was a kid with a cold, but he couldn't eat them. He just lay there, staring at the milk, wondering what the hell he had to do to get things back the way they were supposed to be. She'd been crying. She was always crying, and it was always his fault. “I'm sorry son, I wish I'd known...” And he couldn't say anything, because she'd never believe him, no matter what he said, and she thought she'd let him down. That wasn't right, not at all. Because he'd had a good childhood, for the most part. He'd had parents who were happy together, and a best friend he played with through the eternal days of youth, and all this crap was like toxic filth, spreading across his whole history like crude oil on the water. He couldn't even walk past the lake any more, the one where he and Dexter had swum in the summer, and skated on in the winter, without wanting to throw up.
After he'd smashed up his room, Thoreau tried him out on meds. He quite liked them, actually, because when he took them in the morning, they stopped him thinking for a while. They made him a little bit sleepy, and a little bit vague, but Mom didn't seem to mind. He was smiling more, and she thought he was getting better. After a while, though, the pills at bedtime started to give him nightmares. He didn't put two and two together for a while, didn't realise it was the meds, thought it was him. He would wake up, shaking, heart pounding, wondering where the hell he was. When he started to wake up screaming, Mom was always in the room. He slept with the lights on.
He couldn't keep doing this to her.
When he finally got the courage to move out of the house it was like the whole world sighed with relief. He stopped going to therapy, and even though the courts had ordered it, it wasn't like they were going to enforce it. He'd not been convicted of a crime, after all, and as far as he could tell, he'd done his time. He stopped taking the mood stabiliser and anti psychotic. There were a few horrible weeks when he couldn't sleep properly and he snapped at everyone, and kept seeing things from the corner of his eye. He nearly... very nearly went to see Dex's friends to get himself fixed up, because this felt exactly like coming off junk... and hey, maybe the junk would fix it. That was why they called it a fix, wasn't it?
But he didn't like Dex's friends, and if he fucked things up this time, his parents would know that they'd been right. He gritted his teeth, and stuck it out, and things finally settled down. He woke up about six weeks after going cold turkey to realise he'd slept through the night, and had his first proper appetite in ages. They had the first good snow of winter, and he didn't have to ask anyone's permission to go up and practice on the slopes with Dexter. They actually got to have fun, trying out snow tricks like when they were kids, before TJ had realised how fucked up the world was.
Of course, Dexter had never had that, but at least they could be happy. For a while they were careful round each other, like they were scared to have sex, but TJ had his own apartment now, and if he wanted someone to stay over, it was his business. He hoped Mom didn't get to hear about it, but the whole point of getting an apartment was to get out from under her wing.
Dex was always the one to stay over at TJ's, when they did it, because now that Dex wasn't in care any more, the places he lived in were always dumps. But then, there were enough women who stayed over with TJ the rest of the time that nobody could say for certain he was still queer for Dexter, even if they suspected something. TJ told himself that they weren't queer, not really, because he'd seen Dexter fucking the brains out of that Estelle woman, in all sorts of different ways. Fuck's sake, he musta got it up five times a day. Ha, he thought, and tried not to laugh. The feds even had a video to prove it. TJ tried not to think about what else was on that video.
These days, of course, he was careful to use a condom, unless he was with Dexter. Because Dexter wasn't having sex any more. “Just you, Teej. I ain't met the right woman yet, and... you know. I've had enough sex for the next ten years.” That made sense. And it was flattering that Dexter wanted him despite all that. So, yeah... maybe once or twice a month Dex would stay over, and they'd eat pizza, drink some beer, and fuck for old time's sake. And they'd learned to be quiet, so the neighbours never complained. “We're just fuck buddies anyway,” Dex said, maybe a little bit sadly. “You know, one day we'll meet some actual women.”
“Hey, I'm talking shit,” Dex scowled at him, enviously. “You meet plenty of women, what are you worried about?”
“I just wanna meet a nice one.”
“Here's hoping.” Yeah. Hope. TJ smiled back at Dexter, and they raised their beers to clink them.
After he'd flunked out at school, he'd got a job at the factory, which kept him busy all day, on days when he didn't have therapy. After he moved out he started working full time, and they shifted him over from boxing to the heavy lifting. It was sorta sad. He was spending so much time working on the same floor as his father, something he'd always wanted to do as a kid... and yet here they were, and Dad didn't talk to him a whole lot, and he was looking older than he should. And it was boring work, and hard work, but at least he could float away in his brain, and make up stories. He had a thousand stories in his head, and after he moved out he started scribbling them down when he had a free minute, so he could write them when he got home. He'd stopped writing for ages, after he ran away with Dexter. The cops had been in his bedroom, looking for clues as to where he might have gone, and found the stories he'd been writing, including all the ones about a bad man beating up a kid, and how the kid's best friend murdered the bad man, and they ran away together and lived happily ever after. Even though he'd changed the names, and even though the kids were a boy and a girl, they all knew who he meant, and yeah... that had been a lot of fun to talk about in therapy. He couldn't have anyone reading his stories, not after a thing like that.
The best thing about the factory was that it was loud, so he didn't have to make small talk if he didn't want to. After a while people started to treat him like a regular guy again, or at least, most of them did. Even his Dad started nodding at him when he walked in. Then they had a few months when they were on the same shifts, and they started sitting in the break room, and having coffee. Which was... nice. They were talking. Not about anything important, which TJ was grateful for. Work, and pallets, and metal rivets, and cars. They didn't talk much about Mom, but TJ was glad when Dad started seeing her again. 'Cause he loved his Mom and Dad, and they'd always been good to him.
The only thing was... after what happened, nobody in this stupid town ever treated Dexter like a regular guy again. They'd always thought he was a bit of a freak, but now... Well, some of them treated him like a moron, and some of the older generation thought he was that pervert who'd corrupted the Burke's nice little boy. Everyone seemed to forget that Dexter was actually four months younger than TJ. And TJ knew that Dexter wasn't a moron, wasn't stupid, even if Dex thought so himself, even if he acted like he was. He'd just switched off half his brain at some point when he was a kid. Who could fucking blame him?
And as time passed, TJ wished to God that they hadn't testified, because although they'd been told their testimony would be anonymous, it seemed everyone found out anyway. Yeah, it was anonymous, but enough was reported in the papers that folks could put two and two together. The whole damn town knew that they'd been found in a brothel, and they all thought they knew about videos and pictures, and some of them looked at them like all they could see was sex. For some reason it didn't damage TJ's rep... the girls who put out talked about him like he was a porn star, and told everyone how good he was, but the gossip did damage Dexter.
TJ wrote his stories at night, sometimes in his apartment alone, sometimes when the girls were asleep, stories about small towns, and spite, and gossip. He'd try to clear from his brain any images of a boy on a bed, and wrote instead about a boy and girl falling in love, and running away from it all. Then he'd screw the paper up and toss it on the floor, because the stories were shit. It was no better than the damned crap he'd written when he was fourteen, and he couldn't figure out who was the boy, and who was the girl. It was Dexter and him though, he knew that much now. And... shit, he needed to say something real. Only real was messed up, and who wanted to read that?
He mightn't want to read it, but he needed to write it. He kept on trying.
About a year and a half after he moved out, TJ got seriously drunk, and ended up in a fight. It wasn't his fault, he told the cops, as they hauled him off to emergency. To their credit, they believed him. It helped that he hadn't freaked out, or bitten any of them, or kneed them in the nuts this time. He wasn't even under arrest. Fucking hell, he thought. I really do get away with everything... Part of it, he knew, was that they'd had a major overhaul of the local police department, and all these guys knew (or thought they knew) about him and Dexter. Probably felt guilty about the dirty cops, like they owed him or something. Because he'd raised hell a few times, and he hadn't been arrested since he was sixteen. But yeah... it really wasn't his fault this time, not really. He'd got angry for his friend. The investigation into the paedophile ring in the area was finally coming to an end. (And, Jesus Lord God, as his mother would say in her more pious moments, it had taken forever.) The prosecution had been trying to persuade him and Dexter to testify.
“No,” TJ said, because he wasn't making that mistake again. “You lot said we'd be anonymous, and it was a load of bull. Just go out and ask anyone, 'cause everyone knows.”
“We can handle things differently this time,” the guy said, smoothly.
“No, you can't. 'Cause the papers are gonna have a field day. They've got a doctor, and cops fucking kids, you think you can keep people from talking in a town like this? And we're older now, people won't think 'poor little victim', they'll think 'sick fucking perv.'” He realised too late that he had said 'we', and was talking like he'd been abused by these guys himself. He cringed, and looked sideways at Dexter. For once it was almost a good thing that he was in one of his trances... He hadn't noticed. Shit... TJ hated himself, sometimes. Those fucking therapy sessions had done a real number on his head. Even though the doctor and those cops, and all those other guys had never actually touched him, it damned well felt like it sometimes. Thing was... it was Dexter who was really hurting here.
“We can subpoena you,” the lawyer said. “You'll have to testify. You'll be treated as hostile witnesses, but you'll have to testify.”
“Fuck you,” TJ said. “Look at him,” he jerked his thumb at Dexter. “You wanna kill him? 'Cause he'll never survive it.”
“What about you?”
TJ twisted his lip. “Me? I don't remember anything.”
The lawyer glared at him. “You don't want them to get away with it, do you,” he asked, in an accusing tone.
“You got pictures, don't you?”
And yes, they did. Lots and lots of fucking pictures. Pictures of Dexter, that he'd never wanted to see again, and pictures of them swimming as children in a forever corrupted lake. Worse though... somehow one of the local perverts had even got pictures of him and Dexter as kids, fourteen maybe, after they'd started groping and blowing each other. He'd had no idea anyone might have followed them.
“That was consensual,” TJ said, shoving the pictures back.
“Maybe. What about these?” And the lawyer shoved a stack of photos toward him. “One of the guys we arrested worked in records, copied these during the first trial. We found them on his computer. I take it you recognise them.”
TJ looked at Dexter, but Dexter was staring at the wall, like it was a window to a more beautiful place. No help there. TJ passed his hands over his face. He should be grateful that Dexter didn't have to see it, but he wished suddenly, bitterly, that there was some fucking medicine that would make the whole world go away.
He looked down at the pictures.
There they were. Him and Dexter, doing Estelle and doing each other, and in some of them they were crying. He flushed with shame at how stupid they looked, and ground his teeth. It didn't look consensual at all. And then... there was one more. One he'd not even known about, where he was passed out, and someone he'd never met before was fucking his ass. The image should have upset him but... he was numb.
“You're trying to bully me,” he said, drearily. “You think if you show me this I'll have no choice, but, there's no fucking way I'm gonna put my parents through this shit again. 'Cause my Mom will think she's gotta be there for me, and I am NOT gonna let her see this.”
“It's not in your hands. As the prosecution our first duty is to serve justice, not worry about people's feelings. We want to put bad men away. We may well decide to ask for your mother's testimony, and if so there is every chance that she will see these photographs.”
TJ went very cold, and very angry. “You hurt my Mom,” he said, “and I'll hurt you.”
The guy went stiff in his seat, then released something in a sigh. “Look, your testimony will help. Please?”
Dexter made a noise, and turned his head, staring like a blind man. TJ carefully turned the pictures face side down. “S'alright, Dex,” he said, and put his hand on his friend's face, to turn his head away. Dexter let it happen, mutely.
No... no way even these bastards could put Dexter through this... They were bluffing. Had to be. Surely they could see what it would do to Dex? To TJ's Mom? And they wouldn't need their testimony, would they? No. Not really. He'd read the notes. Semen stains had been recovered, and computers had been raided, and some of the guys had ratted each other out. “You don't really need us,” TJ said calmly. The lawyer didn't deny it, and TJ relaxed. Yeah... the case was strong enough. 'Cause if it came down to it, he would have done it... but he didn't know that much about it, and right now, Dexter was practically fucking catatonic.
“Okay,” the lawyer said, resigned. “If you change your mind...”
And TJ put his arm over Dex's shoulder, led him out of the place, and took him for a drink to unwind. 'Cause... well, they'd just had a really bad day, and they deserved it.
The drink was a mistake.
Turned out, of course, that he'd been right about small towns knowing everything. About halfway through the evening, a bunch of guys came in, and swaggered up to Dexter and him, sneering. “Hey, fags,” one of them said, “hear you guys like to take it up the ass.” Dexter had been relaxing, finally, but when the guy loomed into their personal space, he hunched up, the way he always did when people bullied him. TJ ordered another scotch. He was drunk already, drunker than he'd planned on, but he still had some self control. Ignore them, he told himself, and knocked his drink back, hooked his little finger at the bartender, gesturing for a refill. He knocked that one back too, grimacing. Ignore them, and they'll go away.
“Hey,” TJ said to them, eventually, while trying to attract the barman's attention for another scotch. “We're just trying to watch the ball game.” The bartender was ignoring him... he musta thought he'd had enough to drink. Prick.
“We don't really got a problem with you,” the ringleader said. TJ knew him from the factory. “It's this perv here.”
TJ swung round, slowly, on his stool.
“So, fag,” the guy said to Dex, “you like taking it up the ass?”
Dex was blinking at the television, and TJ knew that he was zoning out, that he couldn't even see the screen. Shit... Dex looked like he was gonna crack any minute, or break into tears... and that would be bad. Really fucking bad.
TJ lost it.
“Hey, retard. Just so you know? I'm the one who takes it up the ass, not Dex. And maybe you should try it sometime, you limp dicked fuck, 'cause Dex here is really fucking good at it, and it's the only way you'll ever get hard.”
He'd ended up in A and E, getting stitches, but then, so did the other guy. After the cops left Dex turned up, and TJ felt his face break into such a stretch of a smile it hurt his cheeks.
“I can't believe you said that.” Dex was staring. “What are people gonna think?” “Who cares,” TJ said, still drunk, but he'd have said it anyway. “I don't care. It's true.” He smirked at the nurse, as he put his hand affectionately on Dex's crotch. She blushed, and looked away. “You are fucking good at it.” And Dexter stuck his thumbs in his belt hoops, and leant against the wall, grinning like he thought he was James Deane. So... it was totally worth it, even though they did keep him overnight for observation (because he'd been knocked on the head) and even though he did wake up in hospital the next day with the hangover from hell, and even though they could never go back to that bar again.
And yeah, it went all around the factory, and people talked, and his Dad had to keep it from his Mom, and couldn't look at him for a week... But... shit. Even after all that his part in the story faded, until it was just Dexter who was the perv. TJ could live anything down. Not because of who he was, or that he deserved it or anything... it was just because of how he looked. Some mornings he'd pause as he was shaving, stare in the mirror, and wish he was ugly. He'd pull the 'baby-blue' face on himself, then sneer at his reflection, contemptuously, thinking how easy it was to take people in. Maybe if he cut himself across the cheek they'd stop falling for it... It wasn't his fault that people were gullible, or that he looked good, and it wasn't fair that he got all the breaks.
Dex didn't help himself much though. Jeez. TJ loved the stupid bastard, but he kept fucking up. He'd lose one job after the other. When he got himself arrested for stealing telegraph poles (and who the hell steals telegraph poles) TJ went into a long funk, and, not for the first time, almost went to see one of Dexter's friends, just for something to help him get through the days. What stopped him were the little white scars on his hand from when it broke through glass, the memory of his mother's sad eyes, and that damned hospital, how bad he'd felt coming down.
Six months later, Dex was out of prison, and obviously back on something. TJ took eight sick days (all he could afford) dragged Dex home, and locked the doors. And after a few hours he realised it was one of the stupidest ideas he'd ever had. They had nothing to do but climb the walls, and shout at each other, until Dex solved the problem by grabbing his dick, and blowing him till he forgot his own name.
So they fucked like rabbits in between ordering takeaway and watching television. By the third day they had drunk all the beer. They spent the fourth day throwing up, and wishing they were dead. The fifth day they started fucking again, and when TJ went back to work on the ninth, and Dex went back to his crummy apartment, everything seemed to be good. Dex even managed to stay off the junk this time.
TJ only realised there was a problem when it started hurting to pee. Maybe it's just cystitis, he told himself. But a week later it hurt even worse, and then, to top everything, he started to smell bad, and his dick started dripping.
“You gave me fucking VD,” he told Dexter, next time he saw him. “What the fuck? You said you weren't doing anybody.”
“I wasn't,” Dexter said. “I mean, until I got to prison.”
“What, you met the love of your life and forgot to tell me?”
Dexter gave him a very bitter look. “See how you like prison,” he said. “If your cell mate takes a shine to you, you can't run away.”
“Oh,” TJ stuttered. “Oh... Shit. I didn't...”
“Hey, I'm sorry, Teej.” And Dexter did sound really, really sorry. “I didn't think he'd be dirty. I mean, they got prison doctors, I thought he'd like, be checked out or something. And it's not like... it's not like he raped me.”
“No. It's never like anyone ever raped you. Tell me who he is, and I'll go kill him.”
“Better not. You're pretty. You murder someone, and you end up in prison, you're everyone's bottom boy.”
TJ swallowed a sour lump in his throat. “Listen,” he said. “You need to get yourself checked out. Get some antibiotics.” He stared at his friend. “And anything ever happens to you again, I mean if anyone ever... You know, just let me know.”
“So I don't keep giving you the clap,” Dexter laughed, like it was an old joke.
No. So I can kill the fucker, TJ thought. Who the hell were these people anyway?
By the time he was twenty one, his Mom and Dad were back together again. When he'd visit them, usually on a Sunday, they'd talk politely, and Mom would make cookies, and she hardly ever cried any more. When he left, Dad would put an arm over his shoulder at the front door, and thank him for the visit. Sometimes they'd have a look under the hood of the car, if she needed tinkering with, and it was almost like old times. But even then, the visits mostly left him sad.
“Dexter doesn't visit these days,” Mom said, one Sunday.
“Would he be welcome if he did?” TJ didn't mean it to sound nasty, but it came out wrong. Mom sighed, and Dad gave him a stern look. 'Don't make your mother cry,' he was saying with his eyes.
“Yeah,” was what he said out loud. “Yeah, he'd be welcome.”
Really? TJ felt something lift in his chest. “I'll ask him,” he said. “Maybe he'll come next week.”
It was five weeks before Dex got up the courage to come, and it wasn't Mom who cried, it was TJ. He locked himself in the bathroom till he'd stopped, then waited some more for the hiccups to pass, and when he came out, everything was nice, and normal, and Dexter was laughing at Dad's baseball jokes, and eating Mom's cookies, and there was a casserole on the stove, and...
It was a good day. After that, Dexter started going round regularly, more even than TJ did, and Mom looked happier, and Dad... well, Dad astonished him, because he didn't seem to mind at all. And then, Dexter got a job, and almost never got high. The week Dexter got his job, maintaining the ski slope, TJ bought flowers, and drove over to see his Mom.
“What are these for,” she asked, smiling at the bouquet.
“The best Mom in the world,” he said, and kissed her. “You know, just in case you didn't know. 'Cause you're beautiful.”
And it was nice. Nice to make Mom happy. If only...
If only he could be happy himself.