That did not go well.
And Sammy was just sitting across the room, trying to look sympathetic. He probably did feel bad, maybe as bad as I did. Sam, he was nice like that. Understanding. Dad, on the other hand, was a goddamn nightmare. He was yelling, calling me a fag, all kinds of shit. He didn’t believe me. I hardly believed me either. I was probably as pissed at myself as he was, maybe even more. I hated disappointing my dad and I hated liking boys.
I guess I’d half-expected it. Dad wasn’t exactly the type you’d call loving, open, caring. He was more the cold, disown-my-son-because-he-just-told-me-he’s-gay type. Or maybe he thought the whole thing was just some sick joke, something my friends taught me. But the sad part was, they hadn’t. I was actually gay.
And it’s too bad, because I know if Mom was still around she would have been okay with it. She would have told me that she loved me no matter what, and that gender didn’t matter as long as I loved the guy. And Dad would have nodded along and probably just kept quiet, and maybe he would be kind of uncomfortable but Mom would help and I could live my happy little gay life. But Mom was dead and Dad got to call the shots. So I got yelled at.
But I couldn’t blame him as much as I would have liked to, though. Dad wanted me to be his macho man, who liked Jack Daniels and football and Hooters’ girls. He wanted me to be like him. Sammy already embarrassed him enough, being all skinny and short. Dad just wanted a son. Instead he got a fag and a scrawny nerd.
You could still feel everything Dad had said in the air, like it was just hanging there. I started thinking over what had just gone down and bit my lip. I was sure as hell gonna cry, but I’d be damned if I cried in front of Sammy. I looked at him for the first time since Dad had left the room. He was already staring right at me.
“Save it, Sammy.”
I hadn’t really meant to snap at him like that. And the way he flinched, that made me regret it. But he was a man. He could take it.
“I just…I support you no matter what.”
“Thanks, Sammy. Means a lot.”
“And about Dad-”
“It doesn’t matter about Dad. I’ll deal with Dad. You don’t worry about that.”
“Listen to me. You’re not a fag. Dad just isn’t used to the idea of you…not liking girls. And I think he was drinking before you told him. But really, don’t feel bad because of him.”
“Like I said, Sammy, I’ll take care of it. Just forget about whatever Dad said. I’m gonna be fine.”
Sam nodded. Even if it was just from my little brother, the support meant a lot. You have to remember, this was all new for me too. The idea of liking boys, kissing boys, wanting boys was still foreign. I didn’t think I belonged any more than my dad did. Maybe even less.
We sat there in silence for an hour, maybe two before Dad slammed the office door open. He stomped in with some printed pamphlet that looked like it was made by a twelve year old. It had little gold crosses all over it and some loopy script that spelled out The Word of God across a pearly landscape of clouds and harps. Underneath, it said something along the lines of “Teaching your unruly children His ways”, and from glancing at the rest of the brochure, it was pretty clear what was going on. I could see Sammy giving me that damn concerned look. That kind of made me feel like crying, but I didn’t. I’d already embarrassed myself in front of Dad enough. Instead I just handed the pamphlet back to Dad and let him drag me away from my little brother and into that stupid Impala. I didn’t resist. That was the smartest thing I did the whole day.
I looked over my shoulder, back at Sammy standing in the driveway, right before we left. He looked so small and weak, standing there by himself in a jacket he got at Goodwill. He gave the littlest, most pathetic wave right before Dad pulled out. He might have been crying. I couldn’t really tell. And then we were already rolling out of the driveway and towards a bunch of Jesus-lovers who thought I was a sinner. For being gay.
The Word of God actually would have probably been pretty charming, if it weren’t full of gay-fearing Jesus freaks. It was this little place with dirt roads leading up to it, a gravel driveway, and a bunch of little white-painted wood buildings. It almost looked like a regular summer camp. I tried to imagine that Dad was dropping me off at camp, and he would be back in a few weeks to take me home. But that fantasy kind of fell apart when he dragged me into the building and made me sit while he registered me for “religious cleansing”.
They didn’t ask him much about me, as far as I could tell. They were more interested in my “experience with the Lord” and what church I went to. I heard the lady behind the counter gasp when Dad said we didn’t go to church. She handed him, like, three brochures on Christianity and said that was all they would need. Dad walked out without a word. He didn’t even say bye.
Then it was just me and the receptionist, who was still recovering from the shocking news that Dad didn’t praise the goddamn Lord every morning. She stared at me like I was the devil, then sighed and told me that Michael would be out in a minute. I didn’t know who Michael was and I didn’t feel like asking. Eventually some guy with dark hair came out and said he was here to give me the tour. I got up and followed him out onto the rotting wood front porch.
“Hi, I’m Michael.”
He stuck his hand out and I shook it. Michael smiled at me so genuinely, which was weird. I guess I had been imagining that everyone here would hate me, that they would treat me like I had a disease. But Michael was being pretty nice for some religious freak. He told me that Dad’s car was awesome, and what year was it? I told him and he got pretty excited about it. I liked Michael. He was nice.
He told me that the secretary’s name was Naomi, and not to pay too much attention to her because she could be kind of harsh. He didn’t ask me anything about my sinful gayness. We talked about football and more cars. Michael liked cars.
It was weird. He knew the reason I was there and I knew the reason I was there, but he didn’t bring it up. I knew he thought I was disgusting and wrong, but he didn’t show it. He was one of those kids who adults said was “going places”. He had the dentist ad, student body president, irritatingly handsome look going for him. He was actually pretty cute. But I had to stop myself from fantasizing too much about a gay conversion camp worker, for pretty obvious reasons.
He led me around and showed the place off. It was family owned, established in 1956, whatever. Basically what I got was that the whole thing was run by some guy named Marv. He had three sons. Michael was one of them. And from the sound of it, they didn’t like him much. Like, yeah, he was their dad and all, but he also forced them to work on his homo farm. And that didn’t seem like the kind of place Michael would be. He was the kind of kid who owned a suit and wore it regularly.
I didn’t hear that much about the other two. Michael was 26, one was 23, and one was 17. That must have sucked for the youngest one. To have to berate kids your own age because they were gay. Well, hopefully not berate. Maybe reprimand. That’s a little less forward, little less violent. Come to think of it, at this point I didn’t even know what I would be doing there. I knew it would be religious, and that it would be fucking stupid.
"Where is everybody?"
"In chapel. It's an hour every day, except on Sundays. Then it's two."
I nodded. That was actually way less than I'd thought. I'd been imagining waking up at 5 A.M. to shower in holy water, then six hours straight of prayer for forgiveness of our love of penis, break for a lunch of the body and blood of Christ, then more Bible crap. Wash, rinse, and repeat until I could pretend to be straight and Dad could come get me. It was becoming pretty clear that I just hadn't pictured this place right at all. It seemed okay, actually.
Michael dropped me off at the dorms. It seemed kind of counterintuitive, trying to make a bunch of gay kids less gay, then letting them sleep together. But whoever Marv was probably had his enslaved sons watching the rooms like security cameras, making sure we weren't up to anything sinful.
I realized pretty quick that I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. I think Michael had been expecting me to unpack and get settled in, but I had nothing to unpack or settle into. Maybe I could write Sammy and ask him to send some stuff. Michael said I could write home whenever I wanted to.
The bed was pretty bland. It was a twin, with cheap yellowish sheets and a pillow that crinkled like it was stuffed with newspaper. It probably was, now that I think about it. Everything there was pretty low-budget.
Across from the bed there was a closet and a tiny tiled-floor bathroom. The room looked pretty lived-in, with clothes thrown everywhere and rumpled sheets on the identical bed on the other side. I guess I had a roommate.
On the unfinished wood nightstand, there was a lamp, an alarm clock, and a Bible. A fancy one, too, not the kind you'd find in a motel drawer covered in cigarette burns. It was real leather, and the pages were thin and soft. I flipped through it a while since I had nothing better to do.
Michael came back probably twenty minutes later. I think he realized that I had absolutely nothing to do. He told me I could meet the family who ran the place, since mass just got out. I nodded and he looked around the room, probably noticing my lack of stuff.
"Did you bring anything with you?"
I shook my head. He didn't seem worried at all.
"No problem. We'll get you some clothes, towels, whatever you need. It takes a while, though. We can find you something until then."
"Can't I just borrow something from my roommate?"
"That isn't allowed."
"Borrowing clothes? Why?"
"It could promote sinful behaviors."
"Fucking how? It's clothes."
"Please don't use that kind of language."
That was it. I was suddenly really, really mad at Michael. At this whole place. I felt the tears I'd been holding back since home start to come, but I didn't let them go until I got Michael out.
"I'm gonna use whatever kind of fucking language I want to. It isn't my fault you're some stuck-up freak who doesn't want anyone to be happy."
"I hope you know that this behavior was unacceptable."
I didn't answer. Michael walked out coolly, and once I knew he was gone I let those damned tears go.
I changed my mind. The Word of God fucking sucked. It was the shittiest place on Earth. And I hadn't even been there two hours.
As soon as Michael left I cried like a goddamn baby. I was praying my roommate wouldn't come in and immediately assume I was some faggy crybaby who couldn't hold his own at homo camp. But I didn't wipe my eyes like a big boy and get on with it. I just sat there on my bed and cried because I was lonely and I was hopeless and I was gay.
I had to splash my face with rusty water from the shitty sink three times before I got the just-finished-watching-a-chick-flick look to go away. But I still probably looked like a four year old who lost his mommy in the grocery store, just sitting on the bed all hunched over and feeling sorry for myself.
I thought I should have straightened up once I heard the screen door open, but I didn't have the energy to. The stampede of fellow gays I was picturing either wasn't there or could walk really quietly, because I only heard one set of footsteps. Whoever it was knocked on the door nervously. I don't know how a knock can sound nervous, but this one did. I started to say come in, but the door opened on its own.
Standing there was a boy with dark hair. He was sturdily built, muscled but still looked frail. He was almost six feet, but seemed tiny. Like he needed help with something.
"Hi," he lifted his hand in the awkwardest wave known to mankind,"you must be Dean." I nodded. He was uncomfortable enough for the both of us, I didn't need to make things weirder by talking.
"Michael told me about what happened earlier."
Fuck. I was about to get yelled at and start bawling my eyes out in front of this little guy. I braced myself for the inevitable.
"Just know that it's not a big deal. Everybody's got a story of something like that that happened when they got here. You'll see."
Who the hell was this guy? He was definitely being nicer than Michael, but hey, Michael had been pretty nice at first too.
"Once you feel better, you should apologize to him. You're going to spend a lot of time around him, so you might as well make peace."
I hated to admit it, but I guess that made sense. I was still pissed at the whole situation, so if I saw Michael then I might have just punched his smug ass face. But I would say sorry eventually.
"You said everyone has a story of when they got here. What's yours, then? Who the hell are you?"
The boy didn't flinch at the swear, not the way Michael had. He didn't react much at all.
"I didn't really come here. Michael's my brother."
"Castiel. Marv's my dad. I work here."
Castiel shrugged, giving me the tiniest smile.
"Hold on. Your name's Castiel?"
He nodded, flushing a little darker. He probably hoped I didn't notice.
"Where does that come from?"
I probably would have joked about it more if it was anybody else, but it was pretty clear this guy was uncomfortable and wanted me to stop.
"The Bible. Some angel. But you can just call me Cas."
I nodded because I had nothing left to say. It was quiet for a second, then he brought up why he actually came.
"So I heard you needed clothes."
I shook my head.
"I have clothes."
He gestured to the empty closet on my side of the room while I gestured to what I had on.
"You're going to need more than that."
"My brother can send me something."
"That'll take a week at least. Let me give you something clean."
I shook my head again.
"It's going to be cold. And your clothes will get dirty. You sure?"
He shrugged, looking defeated even though he hadn't tried that hard.
"Let me know if you change your mind."
And with that, he left.
• • •
Naomi came into my room a little later. She said that the other campers were at dinner and I was welcome to join them. As much as I didn't want to meet my fellow gays, I was starving, so I followed her into the mess hall.
The mess hall was just like the rest of the place: small, white, and kind of dirty. There was a little buffet, with grainy-looking slices of meat soaked in something grey, soggy canned green beans, and applesauce. Delicious, I know.
The guys sitting at the tables didn't seem to mind it. They had all piled their plates with crumbly, wet circles of meat and beans that held the shape of the scoop used to serve them. That wasn't even the weirdest part. They were completely silent. They were sitting in groups, but nobody acknowledged each other. Each one just focused on his plate, like they were scared to talk or something. Maybe they were.
I got myself a plate and sat down with my plastic spork and a couple of guys who seemed okay. I got a couple weird looks, but it didn't matter much. They were just as sinfully screwed up as I was.
We ate in silence. The meal was uneventful, as was everything that followed it up until we went back to our rooms. Then I met my roommate. His name was Benny. He didn't say much, and he didn't really want to talk to me. When he did talk, it was in this layered Southern accent that made him automatically interesting, even though he didn't want to be.
Michael and some short guy with long hair came through the dorms. I don't really know what they were looking for when they came through, but they did it every night. I learned a little later that the guy with Michael was his brother, Gabriel. Gabriel was cool. He didn't care much about what we did, but Michael was uptight about things. While they were there, everyone did their best to act heterosexual, a difficult task for even a short period of time. But the second they were gone, the doors slammed shut and the sounds of roommate hookups were, unfortunately, easy to hear, thanks to the thin walls. This is a detail I wish I hadn’t paid attention to.
I started wondering if Benny was expecting me to be his fuck buddy. I thought it was just, like, a standard or something at Camp Hetero. But that night, we just fell asleep to the unpleasant sounds of suction and moans.
I woke up the next morning to Benny shaking me. When I saw him up close, I realized he was actually pretty cute. We could work out some kind of roommate arrangement if he wanted to.
"Dude, you gotta get up."
I could still barely see, but I could read the clock. It was 5:30 in the freaking morning, and Benny was awake and alert like he'd had more than a few hours of sleep last night. This place was seeming crazier by the minute, and it was getting hard to find anything good about it.
"What the hell are we doing at 5:30?"
"Chores? I thought this was just, like, sleepaway church."
"You thought wrong, kiddo."
Benny was the kind of guy to call you kiddo even though you were the same age. He might have been younger than me. That accent added years he didn't have.
As much as I didn't want to, I got the fuck up and put my shoes on. That was really all I had to do to get ready, since I had slept in my clothes, and I didn't have a toothbrush or anything like that. I went into the bathroom and splashed water on my face, just to seem like I had something to do.
Chores, I found out, meant sweeping and making breakfast. Maybe other things too, but that's all I ever did. That first day, I followed Benny to the kitchen and made 4 dozen eggs' worth of lifeless scrambled eggs. This was paired with a few limp pieces of bacon and half a jug of orange juice that was left sitting out overnight. Anyone else would have thought the breakfast was eh, but it was more than I usually got at home. It wasn't exactly gourmet, but it was something.
The meal went the same way dinner had. We ate in silence. Everyone was either too tired or too scared to talk. Scared of what, I don't know, but they were scared as hell. After breakfast, we had chapel.
I didn't get chapel. It was like school, except you weren't learning anything. For an hour, Marv would just read Bible verses and talk about God-knows-what. That was the first time I saw Marv. He was short, with long gray hair and a patchy beard. He always wore stuff like cardigans, which only made him seem fatter and shorter. He looked like a child molester.
I got down on my knees and stood up when everybody else did. I think I did alright, considering I'd never been to church in my life. When Marv finally dismissed us, everyone started going in two different directions. I followed Benny to a big room, where everyone sat in a circle on the dirty white floor. Everything here was white.
Naomi was pretty clearly the leader of the group. No one was talking, but as soon as she spoke all eyes were on her.
"Does anyone have a thought to share with the group regarding today's service?"
Some gawky kid who was maybe fifteen got up.
"The reading of Leviticus 18:22."
Fuck. Who the hell thought the Bible would be a good way to prove that boys who like boys are active devil worshippers? Yeah, it says a few things about how it's not exactly great, but there's also love thy neighbor. As in, love thy neighbor even if said neighbor is a flaming homosexual. Even the Bible can't agree with itself.
"That's good, Garth. Does anyone else have thoughts about that reading?"
Nobody said anything.
"Maybe you need it fresh in your minds. Leviticus 18:22, you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination."
I'm pretty sure I gagged. That was written a really long time ago. They needed men and women to have sex so they could repopulate after their village had been attacked by dinosaurs or something. But in modern times there were enough people that repopulation wasn't an issue. Yet shit like this still happened.
A little Asian kid stood up. He was tiny. He looked way too young to be there, maybe thirteen. Maybe less. He reminded me of Sammy, a little. That made me sad again.
"An abomination means something unacceptable to God."
Naomi nodded, like she was encouraging him.
"And if God doesn't tolerate something, we shouldn't either."
It went on like that for a while. All these scared looking kids getting up, saying something manufactured to please Naomi, then sitting back down. I don't think Naomi could tell, but none of them believed a word they were saying.
It took a minute to register that Naomi was talking to me. The entire room turned and looked at me. I had maybe thirty sets of gay eyes plus Naomi looking at me.
"Everyone, this is Dean. Dean just came here yesterday. Tell us a little about yourself, Dean."
If she said my name one more time, I was going to punch her. But everybody was waiting for me to say something.
"Hi. I'm Dean Winchester. I'm 17 and I'm from Kansas."
I was done, but everyone was still looking at me like they expected more. Naomi nodded at me, like she was saying go on, tell us your secrets. I kept going.
"And I'm ready to start my journey to finding God."
Naomi smiled like that was exactly what she wanted to hear. Everyone else just kind of sat there. They probably heard that same crap every day.
Naomi closed with a prayer. I put my head down and said amen because that's what everyone else did, then I followed them to lunch. The rest of the day came with more chores, dinner, and a campfire where Marv praised Jesus and told us the plans for tomorrow. They were essentially the same thing as today.
We went back to the dorms. Tonight, Benny probably wasn't drained from the three hour Sunday, because he was actually talking to me. He asked where I was from, and why I was here. I told him, and he was kind of disappointed. Some of the other kids there had crazy stories. Like one of them had been actually having sex with a dude when his dad walked in and threw him in the car butt naked. And there was another who got caught making out with an altar boy in church. And surely there were others, but I don't remember them that well.
We talked for a while. We stopped when Gabriel came in to check on whatever, but after we kept talking. Benny was interesting. He didn't want to talk about his past or anything deep like that. He just told me how he got by here. He said not to talk too much in the group discussions, but still to talk. According to him, if you didn't talk at all, they thought you weren't improving and would call you in for one-on-one counseling. You had to throw in one or two fake statements about your "journey" so no one took notice. Benny knew that there was no curing us. Most of the guys at The Word of God did.
Benny called me over to show me something around midnight. We were supposed to have been asleep for two hours. He showed me this wrinkled little piece of paper, with a bunch of lines and X's drawn on it in black marker.
"It's a map of the place."
"I think there's a way out. There's all these hiking trails and stuff, and then there's a town maybe five miles out."
I just nodded. I didn't really know what to say.
"We could really do it. You probably think I'm crazy, but let me tell you. Nobody goes home here. You kill yourself or you run away. And you don't seem like the suicidal type to me, Dean."
"People kill themselves?"
"All the time. You never really get used to it. You'll just wake up one day and someone's dead. But it keeps happening."
If I could hate that place even more, that's when I did. They let kids off themselves like that and kept on with the God thing like it was just a freak accident that wasn't a problem.
"Why are you telling me this?"
"You can't trust anyone here. Everyone's gonna rat on you so they can maybe go home. I don't know why, but, I trust you, Dean Winchester."
That's when we kissed. It was fast, but I don't think either of us wanted it to be. We were just scared that if we went on too long, we'd get caught.
"We should probably go to sleep."
I looked at the clock. It was almost one.
It went on like that for a few days. Wake up, chores, eat, Jesus, chores, campfire, sleep. Benny and I making out before bed had become a pretty regular thing. We hadn't really done much besides kiss, but it was only a matter of time. It would have stayed like that longer if Dad had let me pack clothes before we left. But they were "concerned about my health" around day 4 of the same clothes, and forced me to at least wash them. That required figuring out the shitty, motel-quality washer and dryer, shared by everybody in the dorms. Michael helped me out.
I completely forgot to mention that we made up. I told him some bullshit about being tired and freaked out the first day, and he said it was fine. So we were good.
I did that all after dinner, while everyone was in their dorms, getting ready for either bed or sex. Gabriel and Michael had already come through. While my stuff was washing, I was in the room wearing nothing but a towel and Benny was in the shower. I had nothing to do, so I picked up the Bible on the nightstand and flipped to that Leviticus thing Garth had talked about. And there it was, page 113,
you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.
Something about actually seeing it printed there made it suck so much more. I should have closed the damn book and thought about something else, but I didn't. I just sat there, reading that I was an abomination and feeling sorry for myself. Benny came out maybe a minute into my shame spiral, dressed like me in only a towel. He saw the Bible and looked disappointed in me.
"Man, you gotta close that thing. It don't mean anything. It's just a book."
I closed it reluctantly and Benny pulled it away from me, letting water drip from his hair and stain the leather cover. He sat on my bed, getting it all wet, but I didn't care much.
I nodded even though I wasn't. He knew I wasn't. He let me stay there a minute and feel sorry for myself.
"Alright, come here, it's gonna be fine."
He pulled me into a kiss and we made out for a few minutes. It might not have gone further than that, but we were both in nothing but towels, so you can probably guess what happened next.
After a whole lot of touching, Benny unwrapped my towel and I took his off a second later. Then, we were just two naked dudes staring at each other. We started kissing again, but this time he let his hands do whatever. He had pretty clearly done it before. I was a total virgin. Benny had been my first guy kiss. I kissed a girl in sixth grade, if that counts, but I thought I was straight then.
So Benny was my first kiss and he was about to be my first something. I didn't know if we were actually going to have sex, but I did know we were going to do something sexual.
He had me sit on the edge of the bed, then sat next to me, nearly on me. I'm about to share some pretty personal details, so prepare yourself.
He got his hand on my dick and started doing all kinds of shit with it, stuff I’d never even seen. Then again, my experience was little to none. Eventually, he stopped with the fancy stuff and just jerked me off. I took his dick in my hand and did the same. There isn't that much more to it. It was hot, but not
exceptional. We were fuck buddies.
The next few days weren't anything all that special. It was the same exact schedule. The only thing that really changed was the meals. I was somehow pegged as one of the best cooks, even though I could barely make scrambled eggs. I made French toast one time, and suddenly I was head of the kitchen. That also meant I got out of the suckiest tasks like sweeping and washing sheets, and spent my time around food instead. Awesome.
Benny and I were still screwing around at night. We hadn't actually had sex yet, but it was only a matter of time. He’d moved on from handjobs to blowjobs. It was a pretty sweet arrangement.
The first time the schedule changed, we were going on a hike to some picnic place where we would probably praise Jesus. The religious stuff was getting pretty repetitive. Over and over, just saying that God thinks you are a sinner. It had been terrible to begin with. How some of the kids who’d been there longer put up with it, I don't know. I was barely on week two and I was losing it.
We left around ten, after a breakfast of yogurts I found in the back of the fridge and dry cereal. All the boys came, Naomi came, Marv came, Marv’s sons came. Michael, Gabriel, and Castiel. Michael was at the head of the group, talking about the local wildlife or something. Gabriel was trailing behind, whipping out a blunt when he thought no one was looking. Castiel was in the middle of the clump, half-listening to what Michael was saying.
Castiel was a quirky little guy. He didn't talk much, he always looked like he had something philosophical on his mind, and he was wearing a raincoat on a sunny, clear hike. A trench coat, actually. It was the nicest thing I'd seen anyone wearing in my time there. He barely talked, but at this point he was still my favorite of the brothers.
It had been really nice out when we left, but as we got closer to our destination, it got darker and colder. It was pretty clearly about to rain, but that didn't stop Marv. We were gonna pray for forgiveness of our homosexuality no matter what the weather said.
We got there and it was seconds from a Noah’s ark level flood. Still, we weren't given much of a choice but to set up our blankets and food. Sure enough, the second we sat down the rain started. It was slow for a while, just a drizzly, gross drip, but as Marv got more and more homophobic it poured harder. He was at the point where he was having to spit out water and wipe his eyes between Bible verses. If God was trying to send him a sign that what he was preaching was wrong, Marv was not getting the message.
You may remember that I had been wearing the same clothes this entire time. This consisted of a jacket that was most definitely not waterproof, a t-shirt that held about as much heat as paper, jeans that were one fall away from splitting through both knees, and boots that were giving me blisters. I still hadn't been allowed to write home, meaning I wouldn't be getting different clothes any time soon. Apparently they wanted me to have some detox time, away from anything at home that could have influenced my gayness.
So my clothes were soaking up water like a sponge and the temperature was dropping. I wasn't even halfway through my soggy peanut butter and jelly before I started shivering. The other boys had raincoats or at least something warm and dry to change into. But all I had were soaked, filthy clothes and the hope that they might dry out before we got back. Marv eventually gave up on the service and just told us to eat and wait it out.
But then the lightning started and we were trapped there. I claimed my space beneath a tree with enough leaves to give me some coverage and pretended to be asleep, so I wouldn't have to talk to anyone. Benny had taught me that. He said that if you made friends here, they’d get suspicious that you were being gay together or something and separate you, punish you, whatever. Apparently, a hell of a lot more punishing went on there than I was aware of. But that's why nobody talked during meals or before church or really anywhere except the dorms. They were scared.
So I was sitting by myself, soaking wet, doing a piss poor job of faking sleep, and generally looking pathetic. I didn't think anyone was paying that much attention to me. And for a while, no one did. After the lightning cleared up, Marv told everyone to pack up. I had nothing to pack, so I just stayed under my tree until I absolutely had to get up. Cas came over to tell me we had to go.
As he good closer, he just looked more worried. Nobody had given me a second look, but Cas, well, Cas was unique, as I've said. He saw me shivering and looking like a wet puppy or something, and he actually sort of cared.
Of course I said I was okay. I wasn’t okay, but you don’t just answer “you okay?” with “no, actually, I’m not”. He still looked worried, though.
Once again, I nodded, because how could I not say I was okay? Except that was the exact moment my teeth decided to start chattering. It sounded like there was some massive construction project going on in my mouth. So of course he got even more concerned, and started taking off that trench coat.
“No, really, I’m fine. And you need it, too.”
“You’re definitely not fine. Take it, really.”
At that point I was too cold to reject anything. If someone had offered to piss on me for warmth, I would have at least considered it.
He stayed to make sure I put it on. I don’t know why I was so embarrassed about being cold. I guess because that’s something gay guys do, get cold. Straight dudes have their masculinity to keep them warm. I was taking another step away from heterosexuality.
We walked once I had the coat on. It had looked like some cheap, wrinkled, thin jacket, but it was still warm from Cas wearing it and there was something ridiculously soft on the inside. It was the coat equivalent of a hug after a really shitty day. That made no sense.
Cas and I walked side by side the whole way back. Well, more that he walked next to me. I didn't try to stop him or anything, but it's not like I was trying to get him next to me. We didn't really talk, which was nice. Talking is exhausting.
When we finally did make it back, I took Cas’ coat and handed it back to him.
He just sort of nodded. He didn't say anything until I had started walking back to the dorms.
I turned around.
“You don't have any other clothes, do you?”
I shook my head. It was sort of embarrassing, actually. It hadn't really occurred to me until then that I had been wearing the same clothes for almost two weeks.
“Come with me.”
He started walking and I followed. It probably wasn't allowed, for me to go off alone with him to his bedroom. But nobody saw.
Cas brought me to a little trailer, white wood like the rest of the place. There were three doors. I followed him to the one on the far left, into a simple little bedroom that vaguely resembled the dorms. Except there was one bed instead of two, and it was much bigger than mine. The closet door stuck a little, and I had to help him get it open.
Most of his clothes weren't anything worth mentioning. They were just regular clothes a kid our age would wear. Cas handed me a gray t-shirt for some place in New York on it and jeans.
“Don't mention it.”
I didn't really know what to say, but I knew just leaving would be rude. And I couldn't be rude to the one guy who was being decent to me, despite the whole sexuality thing. I looked at the t-shirt in my hands.
He laughed a little.
“It's a hard G. You’re saying it like a J.”
If anyone else has said that, they might have sounded like a dick. But Cas was so sincere about it, like he wanted to fix that so I wouldn't embarrass myself if I ever tried to talk about it.
I made sure to say the G right that time. We both laughed, sort of awkwardly. And just like that, we were friends. Or something.
The new clothes were great, but they weren't enough to keep me from getting sick a few days later. I blamed the cold, but it was probably a combination of that and the depression that came with living at a camp that did nothing but tell me I was a bad person. I really wasn't that bad, but they still let me skip service a couple times so I could get better. But the thing was, they couldn't leave me by myself in the dorms. Some safety hazard or something. So for a little, while everybody else praised our gay-hating Lord and Savior, I got to lug my common cold infested ass to the main office and listen to Naomi tell me about her friend’s cat or something. For the first day or two, at least.
Cas came in to get something a few days in. He was looking for somebody’s health form, so they could give him Tylenol or something and not get sued. Dad hadn't filled out one of those. He just dropped me and left. He might not have even paid. That kind of created a nightmare when I got sick at first, since they couldn't give me anything and I just had to sort of sit there and suffer. But eventually they caved. I think they knew Dad wouldn't care much what they did to me.
Cas didn't even notice I was in there until Naomi had given him the papers and he was on his way out. He stopped when he saw me looking all pathetic and sick, just sitting there doing absolutely nothing. He tilted his head a little, and squinted. He did that a lot, actually.
“Shouldn't you be at the service?”
Even if I had told him I was perfectly fine, my voice would have given away the shitty state of my health.
“So you just have to sit in here?”
I nodded, not wanting to use up what was left of my voice.
“Come with me. I have some stuff you can do while you wait. Shouldn't be too hard, just organizing papers and stuff.”
He looked at Naomi to confirm it was okay, and she nodded. I followed him out onto the rotting wood porch.
“I don't actually have any work for you.”
I laughed a little. He just looked at me and kept talking.
“You looked sort of miserable in there. You can come hang out in my room.”
I nodded and followed him. I wasn't talking because of my voice, but I don't think I would have said that much anyways. Cas and I hadn't talked at all since he gave me the clothes. I was wearing the Carnegie shirt then. He noticed that as soon as we got to his room, when he sat down on the bed.
“Have you still not been able to write home for clothes?”
I shook my head. Once again, saving my voice. Cas looked sort of frustrated.
“They wanted me to be removed from anything that might have made me…you know…”
Cas nodded and rolled his eyes. He seemed a little rebellious for son of the owner. Then again, I could smell the pot coming out of Gabriel’s room next door, so he wasn't the most problematic of the three.
“Wait a second.”
He looked around and found a stack of stationery. He handed me one of the cards and a black pen, a nice one. The kind English teachers have.
“Go ahead. No one will notice when the package comes.”
We sat there in silence for a few minutes while I wrote to Sammy. I kept it pretty brief. It wasn't like I was at summer camp or something. He wouldn't have wanted to know what was going on and I didn't want him to.
I don't have any more clothes. I just have what I was wearing when I got here and some things people gave me. Please send more. Shoes too.
It felt weirdly formal to be writing a letter to Sammy. I hadn't ever done that before. I didn't really need to, I guess, since we were living in the same house and all.
I dropped the pen and nodded.
“Good. Your stuff should be here in a few days. Until then, my closet is your closet.”
“No, really. Take whatever. You need clothes.”
He looked at me then, and that was the exact moment I realized he was cute. That freaked me out a little, and it took me a minute to respond.
“I'm okay for now. Really, thanks, though.”
That entire sentence was spoken so awkwardly anyone nearby probably would have suffered severe secondhand embarrassment.
“Okay. Just let me know.”
It was quiet for a while. Not a bad quiet, just no talking.
“So, where's this Carnegie place?”
I already knew that. I just wanted to get a conversation going.
“What happens there? Like, why do you have a shirt from there?”
“It's music, mostly. It's a big performance hall.”
“What kind of music?”
“Every kind you can imagine, and then some.”
“What's your favorite?”
He blushed, a little. I probably wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't been checking him out at the time.
Cas seemed embarrassed. I mean, it's not like classical music is the most hip thing to be a fan of. But it actually was pretty interesting.
“Have you ever been?”
“To Carnegie Hall? Nope. My dad’s brother went there and got me the shirt.”
Silence. I took the opportunity to just stare at him more. His hair was cute. And he had these pretty blue eyes. He was cute in a different way than Michael or Benny. Quirky cute.
“Well, the service is almost over. You should probably go back.”
He waved the letter.
“I’ll mail this. And I'll let you know when the package comes.”
I went back to the dorms, still thinking about his hair. It flopped down a little in the front, and you could tell that he had tried to comb it. But it still looked messy.
We kept that up for a few days. He would tell Naomi he had something for me to do and she would nod. For an hour a day, I got to hang out with a cute boy in his room. A very straight, very homophobic boy, but a cute one nonetheless.
We actually got to be pretty good friends. I learned that he spoke decent French, hated broccoli unless there was cheese on it, wanted a dog, that sort of thing. Nothing life-changing, but little facts.
During those few days, I was in denial about having a crush on him. I knew it would not bode well for me if I had a crush on my only sort-of-friend. I’d liked straight boys before. It hadn’t ended well.
So we would talk and I would check him out while he wasn’t looking. But they said if I was too sick to go to church one more day, they’d call a doctor. And so I went back.
Church hadn’t changed much since the first day. I guess you can only find so many anti-gay things in the Bible before you just start having to repeat yourself. They would read the same three verses every day, and at first they hurt the tiniest bit. But after a few weeks, it was really just routine.
The post-church group meetings were also more or less the same. A couple guys would take one for the team and say they felt less gay or something. Naomi would say something encouraging back, and then we would leave.
The package came the second day I was back at church. I didn’t see Cas, but it was on my bed after the service. It was big, which was good. After three weeks of the same clothes every day, it would be nice to have something to pick from. I opened it, and sitting on top of a pair of tennis shoes that I could actually wear and be comfortable in was a note from Sammy. It was short, and it had this grid of creases like he’d kept it in his pocket for a while.
Here are your clothes. I can send more if you need them. Miss you.
He’d written the whole thing in sloppy cursive. I hated how short it was. I wished that he had said more. Even if he had been telling me that Dad was glad I was gone and things were better at home without me, it would have been nice to hear from him.
The “miss you” at the end killed me. I missed him like crazy. Every time I saw someone here younger than me, even if it was just by a year or two, I thought about him. Dad was probably being a douche to him, even more since I wasn't around to protect him.
I started crying. I missed Sammy. I even missed Dad, sort of. Hearing him calling me lazy or an asshole or a shit son would have been refreshing. Being called a “troubled teen with the potential to return to a holy path” got exhausting pretty quick. Benny, of course, chose to come in as I was sitting cross-legged on my bed, bawling over a box of clothes. He didn't notice at first.
“You finally get some real clothes?”
He looked over when I didn't answer.
I looked up at him, and he ran over like I was dying.
“What's going on? Is someone dead?”
I shook my head and wiped my eyes like a four year old.
“I'm fine. I just got something from home.”
I guess he knew what that meant.
“You wanna be alone?”
He kissed me on the cheek and left.
I admitted to myself that I had a crush on Cas about the same time Benny and I started having sex. I had been in denial about it since the day he gave me his jacket, and finally allowing myself to have feelings for him was sort of a relief.
But you’re probably wondering more about the sex with Benny thing, so I’ll tell you about that.
Really, there isn’t that much to tell. We were making out one night, and he asked if I had had sex before. I don’t know why that was the first time we’d had that conversation, or why we even needed to have it at all. Some of my previous performances had made it pretty clear how new I was to the whole sex thing.
But I told him no, and he didn't seem terribly shocked. He asked if I wanted to, and of course I told him yes. Benny wasn't a bad guy to lose my virginity to.
He told me I could top until I was used to it, and then we had sex. It was neat. Like, I didn't feel some crazy romantic connection with him or anything, but it felt pretty damn good. Better than I had imagined.
I'm not going to go into detail, because there really isn't that much to describe. We didn't do it again for a while, but it felt like Benny was happier in the few days after. Like something between us had disappeared. It had, in a way, I guess. We had known we would fuck pretty much since I arrived, and then we finally did.
Back to the Cas thing.
So I stopped hanging out in his room. I thought about faking sick some more so that I could, but they would catch on. And I probably would have just been really nervous about it, since I was actually letting myself feel for him.
It was a dumb crush. He was obviously straight, not to mention likely one of the most homophobic guys I’d ever met. He hadn't said anything, but it was assumed that because he’d more or less dedicated his life to converting gay guys, he wasn't a huge fan of theirs. The guy was straight.
Not that that stopped me from thinking about him 24/7. But it did stop me from thinking that I had any chance in hell with him.
I freaked out when the first letter came. It wasn’t a letter as much as an index card folded into fours, but same thing. He had slipped it under the windowsill in our room, by my bed. I thought it was kind of weird, since we were living within yards of each other, but he explained.
My dad said I'm not supposed to talk to you anymore. He thinks it's dangerous for you to build close relationships with other men. I don't get it. Still, if you need anything, write.
Even Marv could see how much I liked him. And he was right, it was dangerous.
I thought about the letter for days. I didn't write back. I guess I probably should have. That's the polite thing to do, when someone sends you a letter. But when you're gay as hell for said person and probably couldn't even write them a letter without making it painfully obvious, it complicates things. I would see him sometimes, at meals or something, and we would make eye contact for a second. Like we both knew what was going on, but weren’t going to acknowledge it. I didn’t know what kind of trouble the letter would get him into, but Marv didn’t seem like the kind of dad you wanted to piss off.
In addition to this whole secret thing, I had the regular awkward crush jitters every time I was around Cas, meaning basically 100% of the time.
The next time Benny and I had sex was the last. It was probably a week after the first time. Michael had already come through our room, though he hadn’t finished going through all the dorms yet. But we were pretty horny and we didn’t want to wait, so we just kept quiet and went at it for a few minutes. We thought we were in the clear by the time the actual sex started. Meaning that when Michael walked in, we were so into it that we didn’t notice right away. It’s not like he was just watching us have sex, but he definitely saw too much.
Now there’s a position to uncomfortably pause in. Benny tore the sheet from the bed and covered both of us with it.
“Both of you, get dressed.”
That was the voice I least wanted to hear. It was reluctant and uncomfortable. He sounded like he didn’t want to be saying it. Cas.
“Benny, come with me. Dean, stay here. That doesn’t mean you’re off the hook, but you’re a first time offender.”
Michael sounded like he meant it. He was only a few years older than us, but we still grabbed our clothes off the floor and did what he said as fast as we could. He was like a teacher.
Once he was dressed, Michael dragged Benny away. Cas lingered a second. I could tell he was disappointed, but he looked sorry. Like it was his fault that I was in trouble.
Benny didn’t come back that night. I tried not to think about it too much.
I woke up the next morning with the room to myself. I hadn’t expected Benny to come back, especially if he was a repeat offender, like Michael had said. I didn’t know where he would have slept. From the looks of it at breakfast, he hadn’t slept at all. I tried to make eye contact with him or something, let him know I was on his side, but he was avoiding me. Michael had probably told him to.
No one had tried to talk to me about it for a while, and I was hoping I’d be able to get off easy. But Michael pulled me to the side after the service.
“You’re going to go see Marv.”
I looked at him for a minute, my silent cry for help, even directed at him.
“I have to take over his group meeting. Hurry.”
Michael rushed me to a little white wood building by the sons’ rooms. It was so similar to the rest of the place, I hadn't noticed it until then. But on the inside, it was totally different. The Word of God was all this quaint stuff that felt like it came out of the 1800s. But Marv’s office was fancy, with books and important looking papers and two huge, intimidating leather chairs. He sat in one of them, looking smaller than usual compared to its all-business intensity.
“My sons told me you were having inappropriate relations with your roommate, Benny Lafitte.”
Sons. Meaning Cas was a part of this.
I hated using the word sir. I felt like a fucking knight or something. But I had to milk what little respect I could salvage from this guy.
“Is this the first time this occurred?”
Honesty. Best policy. All that shit.
“Are you aware of the consequences for your actions?”
“You will no longer share a room with Benny Lafitte. You will wake up an hour early to complete chores given to you by me, Naomi, or my sons. Your family will be informed.”
Fuck. That was not good. I could handle the first two, but the last one killed me. Dad would be more than pissed, to say the least. Sammy would be disappointed in me, which was a thousand times worse than anything Dad could have done.
“Do you have any questions?”
Of course I did. The first being why he felt the need to ask such a stupid ass question.
“Where was Benny last night?”
“He was sent to sleep in another room.”
Marv was lying. It was painfully obvious. Whatever had happened to Benny, it was something I was not supposed to hear about. I was scared for him.
“You are not to speak with him again. If you are found to be in contact with him in any way, further discipline will be necessary.”
“You are excused.”
So Marv was a total douche. I walked out standing up straight like a gentleman, like I wasn't some fucked up, recently “disciplined” gay kid. But the second I was outside, I let myself get fucking mad. Dad was going to find out, Sammy was going to find out. Cas was probably disgusted by me. I was no longer allowed to talk to my one sort-of-friend.
I started crying. I punched the side of the dorm building, so hard it left a gray smear. My hand hurt like hell, but so did the rest of me and it didn't matter much.
I started thinking about Benny’s map. It was stupid, but just the idea that we could possibly escape helped a little. Of course, that would require talking to him, which would get me into even more trouble.
I punched the wall again.
I hadn't meant to say it, and I definitely hadn't meant to shout it. But I did, because my hand hurt like a bitch and I was not in the best of mindsets.
I saw someone standing outside the sons’ trailers. I knew who it was, right away, but I let myself deny the fact that he’d just seen me losing it. I wiped my face and walked into the chapel like I hadn't just had a small breakdown.
I sat through the rest of Naomi’s meeting without saying a word. No one really paid that much attention to me, thankfully. They could probably still tell that I'd been crying, though.
I went back to my dorm. All of Benny’s stuff was gone.
There was a note on the windowsill.
I’m sorry. I didn't want to tell.
At this point I had to answer Cas. He had left me two letters and pretty clearly wanted to continue the smidge of friendship we’d had. I didn’t have paper. I just wrote on the back of Cas’ note.
It’s fine. I’m going to be okay. Worried about Benny. Do you know what happened?
I slid it to the other side of the windowsill, splashed a little water on my face to try and hide my previous freakout, and went to cook dinner. It was a couple shrink-wrapped slabs of ham that had been in the back of the fridge for a few more days than was healthy, and a freezer burned box of broccoli. We cooked all of it over the one burner that worked, and I made the executive decision as unofficial head chef to melt a little cheese over it. For Cas. When we were talking in his room, he had mentioned that the only way he’d ever eat broccoli was if it had cheese. I didn’t say that part out loud, though. I just said that the broccoli alone was too bland.
Cas left dinner early. I still made sure he had plenty of the broccoli. He sort of rushed out, but nobody paid that much attention. I mean, I did, but that doesn’t really count. Benny left before we were supposed to, but I think he was supposed to. Everyone saw him walk out and no one said much about it. No one ever said much of anything in the mess hall, but Benny’s departure wasn’t specifically a point of interest. The rest of the meal was pretty anticlimactic. I was worrying about Benny, but that had pretty much been a nonstop thing since Michael took him away.
I went back to my deserted room and showered. I didn’t notice Cas’ note, and I probably wouldn’t have if it hadn’t gotten cold enough that I actually wanted to close the window. It was the first time I would have closed it since my arrival, even though it was almost December. We had even kept it open when it was raining. Benny had said it made the room feel more open and less like a prison. It still did, though. I missed him.
I pulled the strip of paper out from under the window screen right before it slammed shut. In smudged blue ink, Cas had replied:
Would we be able to talk about that in person? It’s a lot to write down. I’m worried about him.
That did nothing to help me sleep. I wrote him a brief shaky response at the bottom of the page, somehow hoping he would get to it before morning.
I sat in bed until Michael came in. He had stopped having Gabriel come with him on the nightly checkups, and started bringing Cas. Not that I minded. It felt weird to be sitting under covers, not being able to sleep until they came in. Like I was waiting for them to tuck me in or something. I don’t know why they even bothered coming into my room. It’s not like I was hooking up with anyone in there.
When they did show up, Michael glanced around and decided he was done. Cas subtly nodded at me from the doorway, and I jerked my chin towards the window, trying to tell him that I’d written back. I didn’t know if he’d gotten the message, but they left and finished their rounds. I could hear them talking after they left, I don’t know about what. But when they passed by my window, there was some crinkling and the note was gone. I set my alarm for an hour earlier and fell asleep.
When I woke up at 4:30 the next morning, the first thing I did was feel under the windowsill for Cas’ answer. After some fumbling, I found the little square and unfolded it. He must have come by in the middle of the night. The thought of him sneaking out, risking getting into hot water with Marv for me made me feel better, sort of.
I’m supposed to give you your task in the morning. I’ll be outside the mess hall because you’re supposed to clean the kitchen. I’ll help you and we can talk then.
I don’t know why we kept up with addressing and signing the letters. There wasn’t really anyone else who would be sending or receiving them to or from my room. I got dressed and walked to the mess hall in pitch black.
There was something peaceful about the place when no one was around. I guess that’s the case with any place that’s usually busy, but there, when everyone was sleeping and it was dark out, you couldn’t tell what it was for. It just looked like some cutesy day camp for little kids.
Cas was leaning against the side of the cafeteria like he’d said he would.He smiled a little when he saw me.
“Barely. It’s like, the middle of the night.”
We laughed the way you do when it’s 4:30 in the morning and you’re not 100% aware of everything that’s going on around you.
“So what’s up?”
“Um, cleaning the kitchen. Shouldn’t be too bad, and we can talk while we do it.”
We went inside. The kitchen was a mess, but no more than it usually was. We could probably just rinse a few plates and call it.
He was quiet for a minute while he scrubbed the dried cheese off of a plate.
“Even my dad won’t tell me the full story. But as far as I know, you’re not the only one this has happened to. Benny’s been here a long, long time, and this eventually happens with most of his roommates.”
“Three years, I think. Maybe four. He’s had all kinds of problems, with depression and shit. He’s tried to kill himself a couple times. His parent’s aren’t coming back, but even if they did, it would be worse for him at home.”
“No one’s parents are coming back.”
That was way more painful to say out loud than I’d anticipated. I started thinking about what Benny had said, how the only ways out were running away or suicide.
“That’s not true.”
I looked at Cas, he looked at me, and we both knew that was bullshit. If a parent hated their child enough to dump them at Jesus camp for an undisclosed amount of time, they weren’t going to have a sudden change of heart.
“Dean, your parents don’t hate you.”
He jumped to that conclusion pretty quickly. I mean, it was right, but it was still bold. He looked at me for a minute. I could tell he felt bad.
“There’s nothing wrong with you. You know that, right?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Never mind. Benny’s been going into my dad’s office at night. I don’t know what he’s doing in there, but no one is allowed in and he won’t tell us about it. Benny comes out looking all scared, and he has these bruises. I’m scared for him, Dean.”
I was, too. It was surprising that Cas allowed himself to be vulnerable like that at all. He was pretty quiet, closed off. But it was warranted. Benny was in actual danger.
“Is he a good dad?”
Obviously not. But I wanted to hear Cas say it out loud.
“Does he treat you like he should?”
The man essentially enslaved his sons and forced them to teach something they clearly didn’t agree with. He let kids who had already been rejected by their earthly parents know that their Father who Art in Heaven was disappointed in them, too. And apparently, he kept them up all night doing God-knows-what in his overcompensating office. Of course he didn’t treat Cas the way he should.
We both knew he was lying, but I didn’t protest. We were almost done, and people would start coming in for breakfast soon. Neither of us said anything substantial for the rest of the time we spent in there. It wasn’t long.
“I guess we’re finished here. Thanks for, you know, helping and stuff. You should probably go, before someone finds out I didn’t do all this by myself.”
Cas stopped himself right before he walked out.
“Do you need paper?”
“For, you know…”
“Right. Yeah, I don’t have any.”
“I’ll get you some.”
He left after that. He never mentioned what had happened with me and Benny.
The rest of that day was pretty normal. I finished up in the kitchen, helped with breakfast, went to service, the whole nine. I saw Benny once or twice. Cas had been right; he looked terrible. He just looked sort of exhausted and hungry, like a stray dog. He didn't come to service, or to lunch. He was scaring me.
He did make an appearance at dinner, and he came into the kitchen to clean up. That was weird. Even before the punishment, he rarely helped out in the kitchen, choosing to mop or something instead. He seemed strangely happy while he was doing it, like he was trying to appreciate it.
We were some of the last few people still working, side by side over the sink, downy with orange dish soap. He slipped a tiny folded square into my pocket, then looked around to make sure no one had noticed. I waited until I was back in the safety of my room to unfold it. The paper was soft where he had creased it, and torn so that it slowly tapered off into a jagged point that curled in on itself.
i’ll be by your window tonight
Benny hadn't bothered to sign it or anything. He’d scribbled it in black marker and held onto it until he could hand it off to me. I started worrying about him even more. I didn't know what would happen if he was caught outside of wherever it was they were keeping him, but it obviously wouldn't be good. The rest of the day was business as usual, but with the added secrecy of our meeting, and the gravity of whatever was going to happen at it.
Michael came through my room that night twice. He'd done that a few times before. He always acted like it was an accident, but I’m pretty sure it was because he didn't trust me after walking in on me and Benny. He finished another quick sweep of the room, said goodnight, and shut the door behind him. I relaxed for the first time all day with the knowledge that the scenario I'd been picturing all day, where Benny appeared at the window at the exact moment Michael came by, would never have the opportunity to play out. I was awake in bed for probably half an hour before he showed up.
He tapped on the windowsill so lightly I thought it was leaves or something. But I turned and saw the top half of his face poking into my room. He didn't look all light and playful like he normally did. Benny looked wild and kind of beat up, like Cas had said. There were the kind of circles around his eyes that sleep couldn't fix.
The way he said my name was so urgent, so life-or-death that I dropped whatever thoughts I’d had of a happy reunion and got serious.
“Benny. What’s going on?”
He took a second to answer.
“You don't want to know, trust me. Just know it's not okay and maybe it's gonna get fixed, maybe real soon, Dean.”
“Are you okay?”
“To tell you the truth, no, I'm not. But I will be. Promise.”
I could hear him holding back tears, even though he was talking in this forced whisper that kind of freaked me out.
“Benny, why are you here?”
“I want to give you something.”
He slid a sealed envelope into my room, directly on the bed.
“You can't open it now. Wait a few days. You’ll know when.”
Benny leaned into our room and kissed me, hard.
“Benny, what's going on?”
He was off and it scared the hell out of me. Whatever was going on was clearly less okay than he made it seem.
“Don’t worry about it, Dean Winchester.”
He ducked out of the window and disappeared. I turned the envelope over in my hands a few times, thought better of it, sandwiched it between the mattress and frame of my bed, and went to sleep.
I found about a hundred sheets of paper under my window the next morning, when I woke up at a more reasonable hour than I had in weeks.
They found him in the chapel with a leather belt wrapped around his neck. An ambulance came, covered him in a cheap sheet, and took him off somewhere. Broke my damn heart. I don’t know why they bothered taking him to a hospital. He wasn’t coming back.
Marv broke the news before chapel. Everyone got down on their knees and prayed for his soul to ascend peacefully to Heaven, which kind of contradicted the entire message of the place. If Marv had any clue what he was talking about, Benny was rotting in Hell the second he slipped his head into that belt. But I didn’t really want to think about that. Everyone was pretty down about it, but nobody was that broken up. I managed to keep it in until the service was over, but it seriously bummed me out. I cried in my room for a while. I’ve said it before, he was the closest thing I had to a friend and he was dead. I had Cas, but I was still crushing hard on him and we could hardly ever speak to each other, besides letters. I didn’t have any responsibilities for an hour or so, so I let myself wallow until I had shit to do. Benny’s death was painful, but I was pretty much the only person who was that sad about it and I didn't want to make anyone think I was weak or something.
His funeral was a couple days later, in South Carolina, I think. It depressed the hell out of me to know that his parents wouldn’t go. Maybe no one would. He might not have even had friends outside of The Word of God, or he might have lost them once he was sent to it. And it’s not like we were allowed to go. I got why he killed himself.
Cas’ letters stopped for a few days after that. He was probably busy with all the phone calls and paperwork that come with a suicidal student. That left me alone to deal with the second death in my life. The first was Mom’s, but that didn’t really count because I didn’t remember it. I was four when she died in some freak car accident. I wish I had some sob story to tell you, but I don’t. Mom had been dead since the beginning of my memory. Sometimes I’d see a picture of her and think for a second that I’d known her, but I knew it was just my mind playing tricks on me.
The first letter came nearly a week later. It was longer than the other ones. Cas used bigger words and wrote like an adult, instead of the notes we’d been writing like we were exchanging them in class. Nothing I needed a dictionary for, but still. It was cute. I pictured him studying those words in an English class, even though he didn’t go to school. Marv and Naomi homeschooled Michael, Gabriel, and Cas, and probably did a shit job.
It’s heartbreaking, what happened to Benny. It’s happened here before, but it never gets any easier. These kids think they aren’t good enough for their families or God or anyone, and they kill themselves because they don’t have anywhere else to go. I think you were keeping Benny alive, in a way. What my dad was doing to him wasn’t helping, but I believe that being separated from you is what really threw him off. I saw him the day before he did it, and he looked awful. He was skinny, tired, beat up, whatever word you want to use. I still don’t know exactly what was happening in that office, but it was draining him like hell. I wish we had been there to stop him.
I think they're going to stop with your punishment. Everyone’s a little shaken up at the moment and they know it hit you hard. Waking up at 4 A.M. a few times is enough to get you not to do it again. And between you and me, the punishments don't get that much worse, unless you do something really depraved. I've only seen a couple of those. What happened to Benny isn't that common.
I hope you're okay. I've barely seen you at all these past few days, and I know that you and Benny were friends. I have no clue when the next time we can meet is. Hopefully, with all that's going on, we can talk without my dad noticing and thinking that I'm trying to sabotage your purification or something. It should be soon.
I wanted to cry by the time I finished reading. He actually wanted to be my friend. I guess I'd known that all along, but it felt good to cement. I wasn't used to the idea of cute boys who were supposed to hate me tolerating me.
I wrote back on the first fresh paper that Cas had given me. It had dull curves engraved on it, like he'd been writing on a sheet on top of it and was bearing down too hard. It was too hard to come up with a decent response to the emotional essay he'd written me, so I just wrote down what I felt like writing down.
I’m okay. I’m a little freaked out, but I’ll be fine. It’s good to hear about the punishment. Waking up at 4:30 in the morning every day gets old pretty quick. Let me know what’s going on with your dad if it gets messed up. He’s always seemed kind of off, honestly, and it’s not like anything you’ve told me recently has helped his already crazy low reputation. Thanks for saying what you did about Benny and me, and thanks for not wanting to tell. I never thanked you for that.
If I hadn’t written to Cas, I wouldn't have remembered the envelope Benny gave me. I have no idea how the hell I’d managed to forget about that, with everything that was going on. But I did, and it was still underneath the mattress, sitting on the thin web of cotton that covered the bed frame. Inside was the wrinkled map of the place Benny’d shown me during my first few days.
just because i couldn't find my way out doesn't mean you won't. stay gold, ponyboy.
I fucking burst into tears at that. It wasn't like I started sniffling and that turned into sobs, it was that I immediately made these disgusting sounds with all sorts of bodily fluids running down my face. The rooms weren't soundproof or anything, so I knew that everyone could hear me. They probably thought I was dying or something.
He had to go and quote the fucking Outsiders. That was the cheesiest line someone could leave you with. But that killed me even more, because that's what Johnny said right before he died. Sweet little Johnny, who had shitty parents and a gang of buff guys with switchblades to take care of him. Who died a martyr. We read that book at school a few years ago.
The thing is, Benny wasn't anything like Johnny. He was no different from the rest of us. I mean, we all had shitty parents, but there was nobody to protect us or to say our cliché last words to. We were just a bunch of fag kids with nowhere else to go. The Greasers would have beat us up.
I folded the map in half, then in half again, so it made a discreet little square that I zipped inside my pillow. I then proceeded to curl into a ball of cheap sheets and heartbreak, and cried into the bed for what felt like hours.
I didn't leave my room for the rest of the day. I missed dinner, and the unnecessary, nightly, religious campfire. So not much. But nobody tried to get me out of my room. They must have known I was coping with the last few days, that it was just hitting me.
I pulled the plug on my alarm while it beeped the next morning and went back to sleep. It was the first time I'd slept in since I'd gotten there, even when I had been sick. And still, no one came to get me. I missed breakfast, and service, and just stayed in my room. I didn't even put on real clothes, or shower, or brush my teeth. I stayed exactly where I was and felt sorry for myself. I knew there’d be hell to pay for it later, but I honestly could not have cared less. I was miserable.
I hadn't eaten since lunch the day before, but I wasn't hungry. It was like my entire body had shut down. Benny’s map had brought the whole thing home, that he'd killed himself and it was kind of my fault, kind of his own, kind of Marv’s. Kind of everyone’s fault. I could hear talking as kids came into the dorms for the few minutes between service and lunch. Every time someone walked past, I was scared they'd be coming into my room to yell at me for missing service, but no one did. They either hadn't noticed or they understood, but based on the sympathy levels of Marv, Michael, and Naomi, they hadn't noticed.
Someone knocked on my door during lunch. I didn't say anything, but after a while he let himself in anyway and Michael was standing in my room looking pretty appalled at the mess I'd become. He looked sort of sorry, like he was faking empathy.
“So we’ve noticed you haven't come out of your room in a while.”
I normally would have laughed because he said come out, but it was not the time for that. I just nodded in response.
“We were just wondering, why is that?”
I shrugged. It was childish, but I had no desire to speak to him.
“Is it because of Benny?”
I cringed a little at that name and pulled the sheets up over me, until they almost covered my face.
“I guess so.”
He faked a look of concern.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not with you.”
I didn't want to talk about it with anyone, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to get in a little dig at Michael. Unfortunately, he was unfazed.
With that, he left. I started to notice how painfully hungry I was, but I just stayed under the covers. A few minutes later, there was another knock on the door. I still said nothing, but Cas let himself in. He had a plate of food, which was an even better sight than him.
He sat down on the bed, like, right next to me. It might have been uncomfortable if I wasn't so attracted to him.
Long pause. He nudged the plate towards me like I hadn't eaten in days.
“Why are you here?”
“Figured you'd be hungry.”
I didn't believe him, but I didn't say anything about it.
I took the plate and put it down next to me on the bed. It was chicken nuggets. They were supposed to be a treat, but they were freezerburned and tasted nothing like chicken. They were getting soggy from the mysterious liquid that oozed out of the canned green beans surrounding them and the juice from a singular orange slice. Even school lunches were better than this, but I was starving. I didn't eat, though. I let Cas talk.
“So Michael said you wouldn't talk to him.”
“Do you want anything?”
He was the best. Cas wasn't pressing me or anything. He just wanted to make sure I was eating and that I was gonna come out eventually.
“I think I'm fine.”
That was supposed to be the line to dismiss him, but now I think I would have hated to see him go. Good thing he didn't, I guess.
“I mean, I can't think of anything I need now. Thanks for the offer, though.”
He didn't leave. I didn't have anything left to say to him.
“So are you sure you're okay?”
“Yeah, I told you, I don't need anything.”
I immediately regretted the tone I’d said it in. He was trying to help.
“Not just like that, I mean…”
He was waiting for me to finish his sentence. I knew what he meant, but I wasn't going to say it.
“I mean if you're doing alright. With Benny and all.”
He didn't believe me. I knew he wouldn't before I even said it.
And then he was so genuinely concerned and I was so emotionally unstable that I bawled right there while he sat uncomfortably next to me.
I was so embarrassed. He was the nicest fucking guy and there he was caring about me, and I just started wailing like a newborn. Cas put his arm around me, sort of. I couldn't see, but I could literally feel the discomfort in his arm. I leaned into it a little. Not like we were cuddling or anything, but just to make it less like I was being comforted by a piece of plywood.
“It wasn't your fault.”
The way he said it was quiet, like he didn't totally believe it. He might have, but I knew it wasn't true. Neither of us said anything.
I lifted away from him and rubbed my eyes. My entire face was wet and it fucking stung. Like I had spent a full day at the world’s shittiest beach. Cas’ arm moved a little further around me, then I turned and his face was right there and we kissed.
It took me a minute before it really registered what had happened. It had felt accidental, like we'd both been turning our heads at the same time and my mouth just sort of bumped into his. But it was clearly on purpose, evidenced by the shade of red he was as soon as we separated.
Cas got up off the bed and walked out without another word. I heard him take the letter from my windowsill as he passed.
I was no closer to leaving my room after that. Kissing Cas screwed me up beyond belief. I couldn't even eat the food he’d brought me. I just had to pace around my room and freak out.
Because it would have been one thing if I'd kissed him. I could walk up to anyone and kiss them and it wouldn't mean a thing as long as they didn't kiss back. But if anything, Cas had initiated it. I mean, as soon as I realized what was going on I leaned in and stuff, but Cas had been the one go in for the kiss first. He was cute and he was a boy and he liked me and his entire life revolved around fixing gay kids. I figured maybe we could work around that last part.
I almost pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote him a sonnet or some weird romantic thing like that, but I waited for him to write me. He’d just gotten one of my letters and he wouldn't be checking for more until he brought one back. Maybe he wouldn't even answer. Maybe it was some sort of freak accident and he actually hadn't meant to do it and I was about to get expelled from gay camp. I dumped the food in the garbage can.
I tried to remember everything I'd said to him in my latest letter, to make sure nothing sounded awkward or anything, but I was drawing a blank. I mean, it was safe to assume I’d said something stupid, but that was an even scarier possibility with what had just happened.
I stayed in my room until dinner. Actually until right before dinner, which is a fairly important factor in the events that followed. So I finally stepped of my cave, in the same clothes and filth I'd been wearing since the day before. I was going to see if they needed help setting up or anything, but it was quiet when I went inside. The kitchen should have been buzzing, but it was dead silent. It was sort of weird to see the mess hall so peaceful. I'd never been in it by myself before.
I poked my head into the kitchen and saw the refrigerator door open, with someone standing behind it.
If I'd had my eyes closed I still would have known it was him. He just had that sort of presence. Cas hadn't seen me yet, but there was no way he hadn't noticed that someone was there.
I figured I had to say something. He jumped and the refrigerator door closed, revealing him drinking milk directly out of the carton, his hand shaking a little under its weight. Cas pulled the jug away from his mouth, probably hoping I hadn't seen him.
“I saw that.”
He giggled. He had a milk mustache and he was smiling like a little kid. It was by far the most adorable thing I'd ever seen.
“What can you do?”
He shrugged a little when he said that and screwed the cap back on. In retrospect, it was kind of gross, but I was so caught up in the moment it didn't really matter.
I one hundred percent blanked on the reason I was there and just stood there cluelessly.
He wiped his mouth while I, unfortunately, continued my perpetually awkward existence.
“Where is everyone?”
I silently thanked whatever angel was on my shoulder for pulling through on that one. Maybe the whole God thing was starting to work out.
“I'm pretty sure they didn't dust thoroughly enough in the chapel or something. I don't know, but he's holding them back until they do it right.”
“So no dinner then?”
“Not until he decides it's time.”
Marv was a tyrant. You could argue the whole tough love thing, but he was withholding food from us because we couldn't do the useless shit he assigned. God, he pissed me off.
Neither of us said anything. There'd been that blissful moment of nothing being uncomfortable, when I thought maybe things would go back to normal, that we were putting the kiss behind us. But I guess not.
Thankfully, maybe twenty seconds later somebody banged open the mess hall door and my alone time with him was over. The kitchen overflowed with guys moaning about how unfair Marv was. They stopped as soon as they saw Cas, probably afraid that he was going to tell Marv on them. He took the hint and started to make his way out. As he passed me, he put his hand on my shoulder for a second before dropping it.
The kitchen got quiet all of a sudden. Nobody said anything to me, and I don't even think they’d noticed, but for a second I had this moment of panic where I thought for sure we were found out. I figured they’d send me to some gay camp for the worst of the gays, and I'd forever be known as the one who was too gay, beyond Marv’s level of gay expertise.
But nothing happened. The noise picked back up again and I stepped out and waited for dinner to be finished. I didn't really want to draw any more attention to myself than I already had.
Nobody said anything to me about my recent absence. It was nice to be able to blend back in seamlessly. In the eyes of The Word of God’s staff, we were just one big blob of sin. I'm not even sure that Marv knew everyone’s name.
I surprised even myself by choosing to go to the bonfire, because what was the point, really, when I knew exactly what they would talk about. Someone would recite one of the, like, three Bible verses that said being gay was wrong, and then someone else would say they felt like the whole treatment was working and maybe they’d be ready to go home soon. People would clap, and then it would break into small, rambling conversations until Marv told us to go back to the dorms.
Tonight was no different. It was extra pitiful because it was almost winter, maybe late November, since I'd arrived in October, so it was cold as fuck. I would probably write Sam and ask for a coat or gloves or something.
Whoever had built the fire clearly had no idea what he was doing, because it was reduced to a pile of smoldering twigs within minutes.
Cas was there. Marv had pulled him off to the side for a minute. It didn't seem like anything serious, but Cas looked a little frightened nonetheless. Probably because he was talking to about five feet six inches of concentrated bitterness, but who knows?
He started walking towards me and I almost bolted. In my head, I thought about being with him basically all the time, but in real life I freaked out every time he was around. We made eye contact, and then there was no escape.
“Hey. Marv just asked me to get more wood for the fire. Can you help?”
I nodded and literally had to restrain myself from making a “get wood” joke. That would have worked with straight guys, who thought I was also straight, and who I didn't have a massive crush on. But at least two of those things didn't apply to Cas.
I followed him to the barn. The barn was made of white wood like everything else, and it was dusty as hell on the inside because nobody actually used it. There was a huge woodpile out back, where no one really went unless they had to because it was home to every small, disgusting creature you can imagine. Not really the romantic atmosphere I was going for, but it would do.
As soon as we were at the pile, Cas stopped. He started whispering urgently, like we were being watched or something.
“Look, what happened earlier freaked me out. Maybe you too, I don't. I know you weren’t expecting that, because, like, obviously there was no way you could have known and it’s not like my living conditions really suggest anything like that. But yeah, I am, you know, gay. Just don’t tell my dad, or Michael, or anyone. And I think I like you, Dean.”
I could have puked right then and there. I don’t know why. It was the best thing I’d heard since I got to the camp in the first place. But something in my body just decided that I was not ready for something so big and awesome and I started shaking, hard. I could literally feel individual muscles moving and I couldn’t do anything about it except stand there and look like an idiot.
I felt like I’d swallowed half a pound of flour or something.
“I think I like you too. Like, a lot.”
I mustered every shred of confidence and self-respect I had to look him in the eye. We kissed again, but this time it didn’t feel like an accident at all. He was cautious about it, and you could tell. I realized during this that I was probably his first kiss, the way Benny had been mine. I wished I could show him that he wasn't doing a bad job or anything, because I was sure as hell worried about that with Benny, but it was over too soon for anything like that.
Cas didn't say anything about the kiss. He was still awkward and nervous about everything, like he was afraid he'd mess up in front of me. I rarely use this word, but it was adorable.
“We should probably…”
I gestured to the firewood but he shrugged.
“They're having the fire in the woods. There's wood everywhere. They’ll be able to figure it out. And they won't notice we’re gone.”
We stood there for a couple seconds with absolutely no idea what to do. I mean, neither of us had experience with being romantic or in a relationship at all. I had some, if you count Benny, but that was mostly just a hookup thing, looking back at it. It had seemed like more at the time, but it really wasn't complicated. We were friends who sucked each other off on a nightly basis. I felt sort of bad thinking about my kind-of-ex while I was with my current romantic interest, so I stopped.
“So do you want to just...hang here?”
I could have sworn, during that little pause, that he was going to say make out. That would have been fine too.
He leaned against the barn wall and looked at me.
“Tell me something that happened in every year of your life.”
I was kind of surprised by how forward he was. I mean, an ice breaker like that is hardly forward, but we were both so awkward and new at everything that the exchange of any words was sort of a shock. I looked at him all confused for a second, and he kept up with it.
“I'm serious. I want to know.”
He was so adorably determined about it that I had basically no choice but to answer him.
“Alright, um. One.”
I had to think for a while. Like a regular person, I didn't remember anything from the first couple years of my life.
“I was born, I guess? I don't know. I don't remember being a baby.”
I did this laugh after that sounded somewhere between a gag and a turkey being hit by a car, but Cas didn't mention it.
“Alright, skip the first couple of years. What was important that happened when you were, um, four?”
Dammit. I was gunning for five. My mom died when I was four, and I really didn't want to have to talk about that. I started with full intent to bullshit something.
“Huh, well, um, when I was four my dad got me and my brother a, uh, a TV and it was really cool. Black and white and everything, even though they were selling colored ones.”
Cas was looking me right in the eye, and something in me broke and I couldn't lie to that face.
“No, that didn't...that didn't happen. I mean, it did, but that wasn't a big deal.”
He stood there, waiting for me to go on, looking genuinely interested in a way that killed me.
“My, uh, my mom died that year. House fire.”
Cas looked at the ground and nodded.
“My mom died too.”
I didn't want to press any further. We just took the socially mandated moment of silence following the announcement that someone is dead.
It was getting to the point where the silence wasn't respectful anymore, it was just because I didn't know what to say and Cas was waiting for me to answer him. But, being the dumbass I am, I continued to not say anything. Cas, of course, took this all in stride. He slid his hand over mine like the perfect guy he was and we just stood there, enjoying each other’s company. We couldn't do much else, since we weren't official yet and chances were that the guys from the campfire would be walking back to the dorms soon, so we couldn't risk anything. We may have snuck in a kiss or two, but that's beside the point.
Eventually we moved to sitting against the barn wall, still holding hands and shit. I felt like a goddamn prince with him. It was never like that with Benny.
Someone was walking towards the woodpile with the grace of an elephant with three legs. Cas dropped my hand and we both stood up, heterosexualized ourselves, and rushed to pick up the nearest wood so it didn't seem like we’d spent the past fifteen minutes holding hands like idiots.
It was Michael. He'd almost reached the barn and I could tell by his posture that it was him. He had that douchebag way of carrying himself that seemed confident at first, but eventually just got annoying as hell.
“What on Earth are you doing? You've been gone fifteen minutes.”
I'd rarely heard anyone say “what on Earth” in real life besides a couple of teachers, probably, because they weren't allowed to cuss.
“We got separated.”
I attempted to help Cas out. Michael looked at me for a second, confused, and he did the same kind of squint that Cas usually did. For a second, you could actually tell that they were brothers.
“What do you mean, ‘separated’? It's fifty feet away from the fire. We’re freezing out there.”
“It's dark and all the buildings look the same. Give us a break.”
Michael looked irritated and started walking away.
“Fine. Just get wood.”
Not to overshare, but if Michael was concerned with me getting wood, the job was done. Sorry, I had to. Cas and I each grabbed a few logs and started back to the campfire. He kissed me on the cheek right before we were in their field of view.
I found a letter on my windowsill afterwards, inviting me to do the same thing the following night.
That day after Cas and I talked was the best. I had our meeting to look forward to, and everything was going great. We found a box of Bisquick that hadn't expired yet and made pancakes. Chores didn't take that long and Marv let us leave service a few minute early, which surprisingly didn't seem as shitty as usual. And to top all that off, in our smaller groups Naomi commented to me that I “seemed like I was getting better”. I don't know what that meant. I figured if anything, I'd gotten gayer, though I was probably already at maximum gay. Maybe Naomi just thought I seemed happier, and I was likely happy because I had become straighter. Who knows?
At dinner, I actually could not focus on anything except the fifteen minutes I’d get to spend with Cas. Being the responsible young man that I am, I was thinking about him while cooking on a rather hot stove and managed to brand myself with a nice welt across the length of my forearm. After that, I was pretty much limited to setting up, for reasons of my own safety.
Dinner, as usual, was not terribly interesting. Cas wasn't there, so it's not even worth going into it any further. We finished up with the dishes, and I was the first one at the bonfire. I was like that weird kid in elementary school who for some reason always ran to lunch. Except, of course, my reason was that a cute boy was waiting for me, so if the other guys had known that, they probably wouldn't have thought I was that weird. I mean, they would have thought I was weird for hooking up with the owner’s son while I was supposed to be healing myself from my gay affliction, but that's a different kind of weird. They would have just thought I was stupid.
Cas wasn't there when I arrived. It was just me, Marv, Gabe, and maybe two other guys, but I guess I was still expecting him to be there. Still, he didn't come, and as the rest of the guys came in I wondered if there was some secret instruction encrypted in his invitation that I’d missed. I gave it a few minutes, then said I was going to the bathroom and went to go check out the woodpile. I figured that I might as well check before I snuck back into the dorms and went to bed.
He was there, because what kind of love story would this be if he wasn’t? He was leaning up against the wall all alone, and he looked so small there by himself, and I wanted to go put my arm around him and kiss him and be disgustingly adorable. But we were still at the stage where if I kissed him to say hello it would have been weird. We kissed a lot, but it needed more purpose than just a greeting.
He looked up at me, and I could tell from his position that he’d posed like that on purpose to try and seem casual. Cas had his arms crossed and one foot propped up against the barn. If you’d given him a leather jacket and a cigarette, he would’ve looked like a greaser.
I put my arm around him. It was kind of awkward, so I stopped, but then we were just standing there, so I held his hand. Somehow that didn't feel intimate enough, so I put my arm around him again. It was kind of a disaster, but he didn't say anything.
We didn't actually talk that much. It's not that we didn't have anything to talk about, because we had plenty, but we just didn't have to. We eventually slid down the wall and sat, Cas with his head on my shoulder and me sitting there uncomfortably because if I put my head on top of his, it would be weird for both of us. So I just sat there like the world’s most awkward statue, but I mean, I was having the time of my life.
He'd said it like I should’ve known exactly what he meant.
“What's something that happened when you were five?”
He was actually interested in what I had to say, and that instantly made him ten times hotter. If that was even possible.
“I started kindergarten. I was at that school for four years. It was the longest I've ever stayed at one school.”
“I don't know. I'd get into trouble, or fail classes, or something. Sometimes my dad just decided he didn't like the school and he'd switch me. He didn't ever give a reason; I honestly think he just wanted to fuck my life up.”
Cas nodded, like he understood what it was like to have a shitty dad.
“And six, my brother Sam started walking and talking and everything.”
“You’re close with him.”
He said it as an observation, like Sammy and I were two gazelles in the wild and he was making a documentary about us. Which was cute as hell.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
It was quiet for a while. Like I've said a thousand times, not uncomfortable, just quiet. We leaned on each other, and it was awesome. Eventually we ended up kissing, because it's difficult to exist around somebody that attractive and not kiss them. We both got into it enough that we started making out, and also enough that we didn't hear anyone coming until we pulled away to breathe for a second.
“Did you hear that?”
I had, in fact, heard that. Cas was whispering like our lives were at stake. I guess they kind of were, but I was still so mellowed out from all the kissing that it didn't really register.
“Yeah. Is someone there?”
“I think so. Don't say anything, please.”
I could hear how worried he was there. I shut up and let him do his thing, but I did see someone standing about twenty yards away, then a flicker of orange light, then a steady glow.
“It's Gabe. He’s smoking.”
Cas sounded pretty bummed about that. I mean, I would be pissed if Sammy was as big of a stoner as Gabriel was, but he's younger than me. It's my job to protect him. Cas was supposed to look up to his brothers, not be afraid they'd catch him being himself and rat on him.
“Cas, do you think we should-”
He shushed me with one finger and crouched down in front of me, like he was defending me. Gabriel just stood there, all mellowed out the way a stoned guy is. We were both completely frozen for maybe ten minutes while he just stood there smoking without a care. He left, finally, and Cas relaxed.
“Where does he even get it?”
“I'm not sure. I think he has some friend in town who gets it for him. No clue where he gets the money, though.”
I nodded and we split up. I went back to the dorms, and he went back to his room. We both smelled a little like pot.
As soon as I got back to my dorm that night I decided I wasn't done talking with Cas. I wrote him a note, short enough that I couldn't call it a letter.
When I was seven, my dad taught me how to shoot a gun.
Straight and to the point. Kind of like me, except not straight. I put it on the windowsill and fell asleep, and I sat up to check for his response first thing in the morning, even before I turned off the alarm, which sounded like the souls of the damned were screeching their way out of hell, so that's really saying something. And of course, he'd answered me in the middle of the night, telling me to skip lunch and meet him behind the barn instead.
Fast forward a couple hours because that part of the day wasn't terribly important and I sneaked out of the kitchen and met Cas. Who knows how close we'd come to being found out? We thought we were being stealthy as fuck, but in reality, the whole operation was pretty obvious. If I had known it was that easy to just slip out of group activities, I would have done it sooner.
He was holding a basket, the kind with a big rectangular bottom that cheesy couples in romantic comedies each put a hand on as they skip off into the sunset, or whatever. It was really sweet. There was a pretty cruddy excuse for a lunch in there, but it was gourmet compared to what we usually threw together in the dining hall kitchen. I kissed him hello, because it felt like we were at the stage where I could do that and it wasn't weird, even though the night before I’d thought we weren't even near that level. He kissed me right back like he'd been expecting it.
“We’re going on a picnic.”
I'd never been on a picnic before. I’d eaten dinner on the porch with Sam before because Dad was drinking or something and I didn't want him to see it, but I'd never put down a blanket on the grass or packed a basket with the intentions of having a nice lunch in the great outdoors.
“I wanted to show you this place I go, that as far as I know no one else knows about. It's really cool.”
I followed him into the woods, where we’d hiked the day he gave me his jacket. There was a pretty clear path at first, but as we got further away, it was obvious that we were really not supposed to be there. The trees had started out all sturdy and groomed and identical, evenly spaced like some man-made forest. Which, it was.
Then we got further out, where the trees didn't look like trees are supposed to look. It was too bright, and everything was kind of golden and smelled like flowers or honey or something. Cas and I talked about dumb stuff, and I told him how when I was eight my dad had a girlfriend for a while and she was super nice until she got drunk with my dad one night and we never saw her again. He said his dad never had a girlfriend, and I said it was pretty obvious why, and he laughed.
He said we were almost there when the trees were barely even there anymore. They were the kind with twisted trunks that branched off into, like, four different trees, and their bark had flaked off so there were all these patches of red. It was like that all the way up until Cas set the basket down and said we’d arrived.
There was this little creek that ran behind the camp and into the woods that we’d been following, and it had slowly opened up into a lake. In this spot, there was a concrete bridge that ran over the water, and there was this tiny strip of land surrounding a beam in the middle of the bridge. I’m doing a terrible job of describing this place, but it was actually really pretty, in its own sort of strange way.
Cas unfolded a bedsheet from the basket and attempted to flatten out all of the ridges it had from being folded and crammed in a basket for a while. That kind of stuff bothered him, the little imperfections like creases or out-of-place hair or the crusty stuff around the lid to milk. Which is kind of ironic, since we were both about as far from perfect as we could possibly be, partly because of the gay thing and partly because of the million other things that sucked about us. Most of those were things that sucked about me, since Cas was pretty much perfect in my mind, but whatever.
I laughed at him while he tried to smooth the sheet, since it was being blown away at the same time and he couldn't get all four corners to stay down at once. He finally just sat on one end and motioned for me to weigh down the other. I did, and he started explaining the place to me.
“So I come here sometimes. I don't know how Marv hasn't discovered it yet, but it's great. We can swim once it gets warmer, and there's fish and frogs and stuff. It's great.”
And it was. We ate grilled cheese sandwiches out of Ziploc bags and applesauce out of those little plastic cups with foil lids. In elementary school, I would have thought I was too old for it, but it had been so long since I'd had anything that wasn't questionably prepared by my peers that it was basically gourmet. We talked about how embarrassing we were in middle school and how we were pretty sure Marv had starting cutting the milk in the kitchen with water, so he could pass it off as new milk every time. And I told him that when I was nine, my dad took me to a baseball game, which a normal father would do with his normal son. Then we noticed just how cold it had actually gotten, since it was probably almost December, so we wrapped ourselves in the sheet from the ground and walked back to camp, leaving behind a couple of grilled cheese crusts.
I should probably explain how holidays worked at the Word of God, since I was there for Halloween and Thanksgiving at this point and I haven't said anything about either one. Essentially, they didn't do holidays. There was a calendar in the main office where I suppose we could have kept track of the date if we really wanted to, but we mostly just measured it based off the weather. So if it was cold, it was probably around December.
And it was cold by the time we got back. It was really, seriously cold. It had been sort of chilly the whole time, but by the time we got back we were both shaking. We didn't even kiss goodbye or anything, we just sort of nodded and went back to our rooms. It was nice, though.
A couple days later, Michael had a girl visiting for the day. Her name was Lucy and she seemed nice enough, but I wouldn't have expected her from him. She had hair that was kind of short, and a leather jacket, and a ton of makeup. She was really sweet, but she still seemed pretty dark for him.
It snowed around that time, too. It barely stuck, but by then it was definitely December. They stopped having campfires at night because it was so damn cold, meaning that I lost that time with Cas each night. They had us go into the chapel instead, and they played music on this CD player and we were supposed to socialize, or something. I don't know. No one did. Everyone just sat by themselves or with their roommate. It was really uncomfortable.
Lucy was really pretty, and if anyone had been even slightly heterosexual they probably would have had a crush on her. But, you know, we were all gay, so Michael was pretty safe. I actually really liked her. She was kind of snarky and a little odd, which surprised me, since I had pegged Michael’s type as more of a head cheerleader, virginity ring wearing blonde girl. But Lucy was better, though he probably didn't deserve her.
So at the end of her visit, we were in the chapel and I was sitting with two other guys from kitchen duty whose names I can't remember. She came over on Michael’s arm and it was the first time I spoke to her directly, though it wasn't much.
The entire table stared back at her in shock, like we had been expecting her to be deflected by the cloud of homosexuality that constantly surrounded us. But she was just standing there, smiling, like the genuinely nice person she was. I’m not sure what happened to Lucy, but I didn’t see her again after that day. Hopefully it all worked out, even though she was too good for Michael.
I smiled at her. The other guys just sat there.
“Michael, this one’s pretty cute. You might have some competition.”
That rubbed me the wrong way, a little. Because she had to know that I was gay. Maybe she was trying to help, by suggesting that I could date a girl, or something, but it just irritated me. But Michael irritated me even more. He laughed it off, but for a second he looked like he was genuinely concerned I would seduce her or something. That was really fucking annoying, because it meant that he assumed that I was actually capable of being straight, like all of the religious crap they'd been dumping on me was effective, so effective he could see me as a threat. The stupidity of it all came out of me in a passive-aggressive statement that, in retrospect, was a terrible idea.
“Well, good thing I'm gay. No competition here.”
There was sort of a stigma around using that word. Like acknowledging what we were would somehow make it worse. It wasn't bad enough that Michael could actually discipline me, but it was just enough to piss him off. He put his arm around Lucy and led her around to meet my fellow homosexuals without a glance in my direction. I just sat there, quite satisfied with myself.
I’d made really loose plans to meet up with Cas at the barn after we were done in the chapel. As in, he'd kind of nodded his head in its general direction and then tapped his wrist like there was a watch there when I passed him. I assumed that was what that meant.
I figured I might as well just check if he was there, since he could have been communicating something totally different. I took off by myself, and no one really seemed to notice. Maybe because it was dark out, but it was more likely that they just didn't care.
I didn't think he was back there, at first. It was dead quiet. I only saw him when he waved me towards him, and I followed silently. He pointed at a lump probably fifteen feet away. It was moving. Quite quickly, actually.
He put his finger to his lips, but mouthed Michael’s name. Only then did I see that the lump was actually Michael and Lucy going at each other like there was no tomorrow. I didn't know the specific rules, but something about his hand groping underneath her shirt like he was a blind dude trying to read Braille on her chest seemed like a sin. I lost whatever shred of respect I had left for him, but at the same time, it was sort of reassuring. That even he, the holiest of the holy, could be tempted by the seven deadly sins, or whatever.
We were watching them like they were safari animals mating in the wild and we were a couple of dorky scientists in khaki and ugly hats. Straight people were to us as gays were to the heterosexual world: rare and beautiful. And frustrating as hell, since it was totally cool for them to make out in public, but Cas and I'd probably be arrested if we did it.
A log from the firewood pile hit the ground and sufficiently freaked them out. They froze, turned around, and thankfully, didn't see us perving on them. Lucy untangled herself from Michael, and he not-so-subtly adjusted himself. One of them whispered something to the other, and they started moving in opposite directions. Meaning, one of them was coming right towards us.
Our choices were either to stay put and pray they wouldn't see us, or to run for our lives. Cas decided on the latter for the both of us, and I took off half a second after him. I heard something that sounded a hell of a lot like cursing, but we both just kept on. He was fast. It was hot.
We stopped at the wall of the dorms. I literally felt like I could not breathe thanks to the combination of freezing air and basically no physical activity since my arrival, but I still laughed with him until we were both crying, then laughed more because we were crying. He pulled me into one short kiss before taking off for somewhere else. I don't know where he went, but he didn't go to his room.
The door was locked, and I ended up having to tap on some poor kid’s window to get him to let me in. He didn't ask what I’d been doing. Like I said, nobody really cared.
Things between me and Cas got sexual a little while after that. Not, like, all the way sexual, but before that point we’d just had minute-long makeout sessions. Then it started turning into grinding on each other, taking shirts off, things poking my thigh. We were still pretty awkward and virginal about it, since he had no idea what he was doing and I’d had my first kiss about eight weeks earlier.
We never had the time to take these meetings past that, but eventually we'd figure out a way. I'd toyed with the idea of having him climb in that window in the middle of the night, but it was still way too soon to make that call. I didn't want to rush him into it the way Benny and I had done it. He was probably kind of uncomfortable and worried that he wasn't doing it right. I'd been there, but I could also confirm that he was, in fact, doing it correctly. Though I suppose I wouldn't really have known. I had maybe two months of experience on him.
Eight weeks. I'd really been there a while. I mean, I got there in the earlier half of October, and it was somewhere around December. Things hadn't gotten much better. I'd lost my dad’s respect, found a cute boy, lost my virginity, seen my only friend’s corpse driven away, and woken up at an unspeakable hour nearly every morning. The only good part was that I was still just as gay as I was when I got there, if not even gayer. Maybe being surrounded by my people allowed me to draw power from them and supercharge my homosexuality, or something. I was pretty proud of it.
It snowed for the first time a day or two after that. I mean, there'd been flurries, but this was the first time it actually stuck. There were probably two or three inches of it on the ground, the nice kind that stuck together when you tried to make snowballs out of it instead of crumbling. We didn't have snowball fights, though, not for lack of trying. Someone would get nailed every once in a while and they'd yell at us to knock it off, but no one ever did. It kind of became a game of who could piss off Marv the most, which was great since he could never see who threw it until it was too late. Maybe it was my presence or maybe I'd just come at a time of revolution, but it seemed like the guys were getting more rebellious. I mean, rebelling at TWOG was, like, talking in the dining hall, but still.
So after our rendezvous was, uh, interrupted by Michael and Lucy, Cas and I barely saw each other. We made eye contact a couple times and giggled if Michael came in, but it didn't go beyond that until we were maybe three days into the snow. He left a note on the windowsill, telling me to wait until he tapped on the windowsill that night to come outside. And to dress warm. So that was exciting.
That night, when Michael and Gabe came through, I pulled the sheet all the way up to my neck so they didn't see that I was fully dressed, in a coat and shoes. That would have been difficult to explain. Thankfully, they just moved on along.
Cas didn't come by for almost an hour after that. I almost gave up and went to sleep, like, three times, but eventually he did tap on the window.
I easily spent two minutes opening and closing the door as slowly as possible, just to guarantee that there was no sound. Although, really, no one would have done anything if they caught me sneaking out except question what I was doing. And even then, I wouldn't have had an answer. I just knew we were going outside.
The second I stepped out the door, a snowball splattered on my chest and Cas was just standing there looking all smug. I was able to put two and two together and scrape the nearest snow into a ball, nail him with it, and start running. I ducked around the wall, hoping that’d somehow protect me. Shockingly, it did not.
Another one barely missed me. It brushed up against my shoulder, but Cas hadn't managed to hit me. I'd like to credit my nonexistent quick reflexes, but in reality his aim was probably just off.
This turned into a full-on war with both sides pelting chunks of snow at each other from point blank range until we were too cold to keep going. At some point, Cas tripped and well, I ended up on top of him, and we started kissing. And we kept kissing. For quite a while. It wasn't like it had been with Benny. We didn't have to take things past that; we were both perfectly content to just sit there and make out without feeling a need to take our clothes off. I mean, it wouldn't have been the worst thing if we did, but we didn't and I was totally okay with that.
We probably should have been worried someone would see us, considering that we were just outside the dorms and weren't making any attempt to hide. God knows what would've happened if we'd been caught. Still, we didn't really care. Or at least, I didn't.
“I really, really like you.”
He did one of those cute laughs blowing air out of his nose and doing this adorable little half smile, then he kissed me. It was amazing, and even though Marv and my dad and half the kids at the damned camp and apparently God hated me, I felt loved as hell. That was the last real moment I had with Cas for a while.
Cas and I didn't talk for nearly a month after that. Or rather, Cas didn't talk to me. I still don't know why. He stopped leaving me notes, and those I left for him sat there all sadly on the windowsill until I gave up and threw them away. After, of course, tearing them to pieces and crumpling them so no one knew what they were. The last one I left sat there until it was damp and grey around the edges, so there were filthy ridges when I unfolded it and I couldn't read what I'd written. That's probably good, though. By then, I was so desperate to hear from him that the letter was most likely just a bunch of words slammed together begging him to say something to me. He didn't, of course.
Sometimes I'd run into him. I mean, of course I ran into him, since The Word of God was only so big and there weren't that many of us, so obviously I saw him over the course of a month. But nothing ever happened. He could have been avoiding my eyes, or maybe just looking somewhere else, but he didn't look at me. I looked at him quite often, so I assume I would have seen if he had been sneaking glances at me. I'd like to imagine he looked once or twice, just to make sure I wasn't physically falling apart without him. Which, technically, I wasn't. But I don't even know if he really did that.
I had some seriously pathetic moments in that time. I remember flopping down on my bed and swearing to myself that I wouldn't make it another hour without him. More than once, definitely. But somehow, I survived.
I had damn near given up on him when my opportunity presented itself. It was lunch, and I saw Cas walk into the kitchen by himself. I made up some B.S. excuse about finding salt and rushed in before I missed my shot.
He was scrubbing slow circles on a plate at the sink. When I came in, he kept his head down. I think he knew it was me before he saw.
He glanced over his shoulder for a second and smiled a tiny, fake smile before he went back to his far more interesting plate.
That got his attention. I regretted it once I said it, but it was too late. He shut the water off and silently set down the plate, turning around.
“What the hell, man? It’s been weeks. I thought we were going to-”
“Look, not now.”
He wasn't making direct eye contact with me. Like a guilty dog. A guilty, adorable dog that I kind of hated.
“Can we do it tonight? In the barn? You know, where the woodpile is.”
I could hear that he was sorry. It didn't make things much better, but at least he felt kind of bad.
“Okay. I'm supposed to be watching out for rogue homosexuals tonight, so you're not going to get caught.”
We laughed. Barely. But still, it was the first moment we'd had in a while.
“See you then.”
- • •
So, yeah, that night was hell.
I went into it thinking he was going to give me a perfectly reasonable explanation and I’d be over it in ten seconds. Like, he thought Michael was getting suspicious, or something.
That did not happen.
We were both disasters. I started blubbering about how I missed him and how I just wanted to understand why. He, on the other hand, got all shifty and acted like he had no idea what I was talking about. I don't even think he apologized. That pissed me off. His bullshit peaked when he brought up our goddamn Lord and Savior.
“Dean, I don't know. Maybe we shouldn't be doing this.”
“Maybe my dad’s right. There's something wrong with us.”
“Cas, are you fu-”
“And maybe we should be focused on getting rid of that. You can go home once you do.”
I didn't know what to say. I could barely breathe, let alone come up with a rational counter to his argument. All I could really think was that he didn't sound like he believed a word he was saying.
I didn't go back to my dorm right after. I walked to the spot he had taken me a few times. No clue how I managed to get there, since it was pitch black outside and the path wasn't exactly clear, but I made it. I was probably out there for an hour, throwing rocks into the water and bouncing them off the concrete bridge and generally feeling sorry for myself, but fuming at Cas in the same time. I couldn't stand to be mad at him.
My hands were cold as fuck. I took that as God telling me to go back to my dorm, so I did. I got back around 1.
Welcome to the part of my story where everything goes to shit. As if it hasn't already.
A week later, the little Asian kid Kevin committed suicide. I don't know how or why. Well, I could probably guess why. But the thing is, he was maybe thirteen or fourteen. He was around the same age as Sam, and he killed himself. I don't know what I'd do if Sammy ever killed himself. It didn't matter that I hadn't seen him in months, he was my brother and I don't know what I'd do without him. I wonder if Kevin had a brother.
It was a depressing couple of days, but it's not like I knew him terribly well. Really, the only reason it made me sad at all was because it reminded me of Benny and how I didn't know so I couldn't help him. I finally unzipped my pillow and pulled out the folded over square of paper Benny had left me. The guy I'd lost my virginity to, and all I had left of him was that stupid fairy tale theory of how we could get out of the place. I followed the arrow he'd started drawing until it ended, right around where I think Cas’ spot near the bridge was. I assumed that I could just follow the river once I got there until it led me to some place with people who didn't drive children to the point of suicide. Hypothetically, of course, since the likelihood of an escape attempt being successful was about as likely as a slew of Leviticus verses curing us all of our gay plague.
Kevin’s family didn't want a funeral for him. I couldn't imagine anything that Sam could do that would make me despise him that much. It made me realize that I hadn't been able to talk to Sam since he sent me my clothes. Not that I really could, unless Cas and I started speaking again, but I still wished I could talk to him. I missed him.
We had his funeral on the Sunday after he died, in place of a regular service. Marv led it. Naomi, Michael, and Gabe read some throwaway Bible verses about how his soul was at rest beyond the pearly gates. Even though he was, of course, a dirty sinner at thirteen years old.
Turns out they had a whole plot set aside for all the kids whose families hated them as much as God apparently did. They buried him there, with what I assume was the cheapest tombstone money could buy. No quotes or anything. It just said Kevin Tran, 1984-1997 . Poor kid.
I remember the day I found out he had died, I was wearing Cas’ shirt. I guess the appropriate thing to do would have been to retire it, but the concept of doing essentially anything appropriate had pretty much gone out the window fairly early in my Word of God experience. And as much as I felt like I hated him, something in me couldn't. So I kept the shirt.
It was a nice shirt, anyways. Soft, and not the kind where he bought it pre-broken in. You could tell he'd probably worn it a hundred times before passing it off to me. I pictured him getting it, when the fabric was still creased and the ink of the printed logo was still stiff. It was so faded and cracked at this point you could barely see the letters. It reminded me of him correcting my pronunciation of Carnegie, and that whole time period where I got to hang out in his room every day, and those feelings you get when you're first getting a crush on someone where all you want to do is think about them, and everything about them is perfect and you float through the days overwhelmed by their adorable perfection.
It wasn't like that anymore. We'd lost the fun, curious parts and were faced with the reality of having to truly like each other. I didn't mind, but maybe he did.
My mind went back to the shirt. It was soft, the kind of fabric that stretched under its own weight.