He knew something was wrong the moment the front door opened and Josh offered his friends a smile of greeting. Jenna was too busy playing with Josh’s new puppy to notice that his smile was a dim impersonation of the real thing, but Tyler noticed. Tyler always noticed.
Although Tyler knew there was something wrong, he held his tongue. Calling Josh out in front of Jenna would only make things worse. Whatever “things” were.
Tyler thought back to the last time he’d spoken to Josh, just before the other man boarded the plane that brought him home from California. Josh had sounded tired then, but he always sounded tired when he was in LA; the lifestyle there took more out of him than Josh would ever admit. But… was that it? Had Tyler missed some sort of sign that his best friend was struggling with the Anxiety that had plagued him since childhood?
Through dinner, Tyler stole glances at Josh as they ate, watching for the signs of agitation that were all too familiar to him. He watched Josh’s eyes, to see if they darted to the side too often, looking for an escape. He watched Josh’s hands, in case they drummed nervously on the table. He watched the table itself, waiting to see it tremble with the force of Josh’s knees shaking beneath.
But none of those things happened. Josh was… still. Very still. Too still.
By the time they finished their dinners, Tyler had a hot lump of worry burning in his gut no amount of hollow-assurances that everything “was going just fine!” for Josh would quench.
Jenna moved to clear the table and, after she’d disappeared into the kitchen with a stack of dirty plates, Tyler rose to follow her. He grabbed their empty glasses with a, “I’ll just give Jenna a hand,” and followed his wife to into the kitchen.
“Thanks,” she said, taking the glasses as he approached. She bent to load them into the dishwasher.
Tyler cleared his throat. “Uh, babe?” he started, wrestling with guilt over what he was about to ask.
Jenna straightened up, giving him a suspicious look. “Yeah?”
He averted his gaze, suddenly very interested in a glass in the top rack of the dishwasher that wasn’t quite straight. “You know, Jim could probably use a walk and I thought maybe you’d-”
“Take Jim for a nice, long walk so you and Josh can have a nice, long chat about whatever’s bugging him?”
Tyler’s jaw narrowly missed the floor, but Jenna just gave a little chuckle and shook her head. She crossed the space between them. Placing her hands on his shoulders, she kissed Tyler’s cheek.
“You boys,” she said, ruffling his hair playfully to show she wasn’t upset, “it’s like you don’t even know how this relationship works.”
Frowning, Tyler opened his mouth and shut it again. How what relationship worked? He didn’t pretend to always understand his wife – women were mysterious beings, after all – but this time, she had him well and truly stumped. And she didn’t stick around to explain.
While Tyler struggled to make sense of her words, Jenna swept from the kitchen. He heard her laughter, followed by, “Jim, you handsome boy, how would you like to have a little stroll with your Aunt Jenna?”
Josh tried to protest but, by the time Tyler joined them in the dining room, Jenna had already hooked a leash to the dog’s collar and was leading him to the front door. “See you boys soon!” Jenna said merrily, leaving Tyler and Josh alone.
The moment was awkward. Josh, still seated at the table, stared down at the place where his plate had been. Tyler, in the doorway, shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans as he fought to find a way to broach a subject he was absolutely certain his friend wouldn’t want to talk about.
“You wanna…” he started, waving a hand toward the living room. Tyler wasn’t sure what he was going to suggest – load up the Xbox? Watch Netflix? – but it didn’t matter. Josh pushed back his chair, stood, and led the way.
They settled, as they usually did when the nights brought them in front of the TV, beside each other on the sofa, almost but not quite touching. Neither reached for the remote.
“I- We missed you while you were gone,” Tyler said to fill the silence.
Josh merely nodded.
“Listen, bro,” Tyler said, willing the other man to face him, “you know you can talk to me about anything, right?”
This time, nothing more than a half-hearted shrug. Like Tyler’s words held no meaning. Or, like… like Josh knew and didn’t care. Like he didn’t care about anything.
That was when the truth settled around Tyler, heavy and unavoidable, like coat made of lead.
Depression was more than a diagnosis, more than a disease one fought and eventually defeated. It was a monster, insatiable and unforgiving, that gnawed away at a person, one bite at a time, until there was hardly enough of you left to be you. Tyler had fought Depression as long as he could remember. His one wish, when he struggled against his monster, was that no one he loved would ever have to do the same.
But wishes don’t always come true.
“Oh, Josh.” His voice – and his heart – broke. Tears pricked at Tyler’s eyes, surprising him. Finding out that his best friend was battling Depression was somehow worse for Tyler than any of his own darkest moments.
As if he could sense Tyler had seen his secret, Josh turned his head away.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Tyler asked in a quiet, wounded voice. “Why didn’t you call me when things started to get bad? Why didn’t-”
Finally, Josh broke his silence.
“Why?” he asked without looking at Tyler. “So you and Jenna could rush to L.A. to rescue me? So you the two of you could bring me home and tell me how much you love me and want me to stick around? So you could post supportive messages on social media that fans could rally around?”
His voice was flat. Empty.
“Well… yes,” Tyler said. He tugged at a strand of hair, confused. “Why wouldn’t you want that?”
Josh took a shaky breath. “Who said I didn’t?”
Tyler floundered. “I don’t understand,” he said helplessly.
Finally, Josh turned to face him. “Yes, you do,” his said, his voice barely above a whisper. His tired eyes begged Tyler to understand.
And, unfortunately, he did.
It was one of Depression’s greatest weapons, the ability to convince a person they were unworthy of love. That, if they had to ask for help, they didn’t deserve it. Tyler imagined Josh sitting alone in his apartment, surrounded by darkness, cellphone in hand. He could almost see Josh’s finger hovering about the “dial” button then, hating himself for even thinking of bothering his friends, flinging the phone away in disgust.
Those were shoes Tyler had worn before. Too often.
Josh had been a big part of bringing Tyler out of the darkness. Maybe the biggest. It wasn’t fair his savior should also have to fight that fight, especially alone.
Tyler sighed. “I do understand, Josh,” he said, “but you have to-”
Something happened then that made the words die in his throat. As he spoke, Tyler did something he’d done a thousand times before: he laid his hand on Josh’s thigh. If he hadn’t been watching the other man’s face so intently, he might have missed the wince that twisted Josh’s features.
Tyler went cold all over.
No. No, no, no.
Horrified, Tyler pulled his hand away. He squeezed his burning eyes shut and clenched his jaw so tightly it hurt. It took every ounce of willpower Tyler had to keep his voice calm and steady when he said, “Show me.”
Josh shifted nervously, drawing away from Tyler.
“What are you talking about?” His tone was defensive; his body rigid.
Tyler stood, looking down at Josh.
“Take them off,” he said. “Show me.”
A muscle in Josh’s jaw ticked. “No.” He sounded surprisingly young and very afraid.
Anger made Tyler’s hands ball into fists at his sides. “If you don’t,” he warned, “I swear I’ll pin you down and do it myself.”
Josh raised his chin defiantly. “No, you won’t,” he said – but it didn’t sound as though he believed his own words.
Tyler narrowed his eyes but didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Josh knew the kindness and compassion Tyler tried to live by went out the window the moment he thought someone he loved was being hurt. Even if they were the ones causing the pain. Especially if they were the ones causing the pain.
When Tyler’s hard stare remained unwavering, Josh slammed his palms down on the sofa cushion. “Fine!” he said.
Tyler wasn’t sure if the flash of anger he heard in his friend’s voice was directed at him, at the world, or at Josh himself. Probably all of them, if his own experience was anything to go by.
Standing, Josh worked free the belt buckle holding his skinny jeans in place, popped the button, and slid the zipper down. His hands hesitated at the waistband, though, as if his resolve had abandoned him.
Josh dragged in a single, heavy breath, then shoved the jeans down to his knees.
Tyler’s heart didn’t just break when he saw the mess of fresh wounds that crisscrossed his friend’s thighs, it shattered into a million irreparable pieces. The oldest wounds on Josh’s legs had yet to fade into scars and the newest hadn’t even had time to scab over. Clearly, it was a new habit – but one Josh had met with some fervor.
For a long moment, Tyler found he couldn’t speak. Part of him wanted to scream at Josh for doing such a stupid, dangerous thing. Another part of him wanted to wrap Josh up in soft, cotton wool and hide him away from the world where no one would ever be able to hurt him again. In the end, those two parts warred so terribly within Tyler that neither could claim victory over the other. Instead, Tyler did something neither man could ever have expected.
Falling to his knees in front of Josh, Tyler slowly – and ever so carefully – reached out to cup the back of the other man’s thighs. He pulled gently, coaxing, until Josh stepped toward him.
“Ty?” Josh’s voice was uncertain. Tyler didn’t blame him; he wasn’t really sure what he was doing himself, but he didn’t seem to be able to stop.
“Tyler. Come on, man. What are you- Oh!”
Tyler placed a kiss on the only part of Josh’s thighs that wasn’t marred by angry red lines: the small patch of skin that bore his name. He thought of the name on his own thigh, the space that would forever belong to Josh, and his mind went back to the day, over two years ago, when they had given each other the tattoos.
It had been such a happy, crazy time for them. They had been flying high, savoring the success they had worked so hard for. Every day had been a new adventure and the future had held every possibility. A wave of longing swept over Tyler at the memory, nearly choking him. He hadn’t realized how much he missed those days until that very moment.
“For what?” Josh asked in a voice that sounded terribly unsteady.
Tyler let his thumb trace the letters inked into Josh’s flesh. “For not cutting me out of your life.”
With a choked sob, Josh’s hands came to rest on Tyler’s shoulders. “I could never do that.”
Tyler lifted his head to give Josh a sad smile. “I know.” He squeezed the back of Josh’s thigh lightly and rose.
Absently, Tyler raised a hand to his abdomen where deep lines once cut into his skin had, over time, faded into barely visible ghosts. They were nothing but faded scars and memories now, but it wasn’t all that long ago Tyler had taken a razor to his own flesh. As his fingers traced those lines through his shirt, Tyler looked at the man in front of him.
Josh, the one who had kept him from relapsing, who had given him a reason to keep going when he couldn’t find it himself stood there. His eyes were full of unshed tears; his heart full of fear.
Screaming at Josh wasn’t going to help. And, no matter how much Tyler wanted to protect him from the rest of the world, it would never be possible. Tyler might not be able to single-handedly defeat the monster fighting for his best friend’s soul, but he could make sure Josh never had to fight it alone. Grabbing Josh, Tyler pulled him into a tight embrace.
Eventually, they broke apart – but didn’t step away.
“I don’t know how it got this bad,” Tyler said in a thick voice, “and you don’t have to tell me anything until you’re ready, but I promise you we’ll beat this. Together.”
For the first time since he’d stepped through the front door, Josh stopped trying to hold the pain, the fear, the despair at bay. He fell into Tyler and let the tears flow.
The sun had set by the time Jenna and Jim returned from their “little stroll.” She let him off his leash in the entranceway and followed the puppy through the house, in search of his master. They found Josh and Tyler in the living room, wrapped up together in a cozy blanket burrito. Whatever had been bothering Josh, it looked like they were on their way to fixing it.
She’d ask why their pants lay abandoned on the floor another time. Maybe. Some things were best left between a man and his best friend.
Jenna picked up their jeans, folded them neatly, and set them on the coffee table – just in case they decided they needed them when they woke. Then, she went to the sofa and kissed each of the faces sticking out of the burrito.
Maybe they’re starting to understand how this relationship works after all, she thought with a smile before heading off to bed, puppy in tow.