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I recognize the way you make me feel
It's hard to think that
You might not be real
I sense it now, the water's getting deep
I try to wash the pain away from me
Away from me
'Cause you're everywhere to me
And when I close my eyes it's you I see
You're everything I know
That makes me believe
I'm not alone

Everywhere
~Michelle Branch

MARSHALL

Marshall squinted at the letter in his hands, the edges already smudged and wrinkled from pulling it in and out of his pocket. He’d walked around with it for a couple of days now because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to actually put in the mail box and take that chance. The last thing he needed was more fuckin’ rejection right now.

The mailman’s funny little white truck that looked like a souped up golf cart rattled into the trailer park bouncing over the crappy paved entrance and Marshall took a deep breath and reached over to open the drawer. They had community mailboxes where everyone had a key to open their own. Before, when they first moved in, everyone had their regular mailbox but people’s social security checks kept getting stolen.

“Who the hell are you writing?” The rasping voice stopped him and Marshall glanced over to see The Dumbfuck come walking over with his hair all sticking up and his shirt open under the crappy jeans jacket. He’d just gotten up and his face had the bloated look of someone with a mother of hangover. Stubble swarmed over his jaw and he talked with a cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth like he was in a cowboy movie, the punk. Thought being able to do that was just the shit and Marshall’s dopey mom agreed with him.

“None a your fucking business.” Marshall muttered reaching over to the mailbox drawer again. The backhanded slap knocked him sideways, bright bloom of pain in his mouth and metallic taste of blood from where his teeth caught the tender flesh.

Marshall caught his balance and stood straight and stared coldly at The Dumbfuck while the punk sucked on the cigarette then spit it on the dirt grinding it with the heel of the shitkicker boots. The side of his mouth felt a little wet in the cold breeze and he thought he might be bleeding.

“Told you not to give me no lip.”

“Fuck you.”

The Dumbfuck swung again but Marshall dodged the same lameass move and hit the arm aside hard when suddenly a punch to the head made his ears ring. Hands yanked him forward by the scruff of his hoodie and he smelled smoke and sour coffee as Dumbfuck snarled in his face.

“I ain’t your momma, you little asshole. You don’t talk to me that way.”

“You got mail?” The calm, rumbling voice made them both look over and Marshall realized they’d been throwing down out in the open, caught the curtains pushed aside and doors cracked open to look because this was fuckin’ entertainment here in the park.

He immediately went still because the last time he’d gotten going with one of his mom’s fuckbuddies where everyone could see someone had called Children’s Protective Services. He’d only been twelve but they took Nathan and he didn’t see him for a month. For a while he thought he’d never see Nathan again. That wasn’t happening again, not ever.

The mailman’s dark eyes watched Dumbfuck and Marshall knew how it looked: grown man pushing around a kid. Idiot was only four years older than Marshall but he was a tall fucker, six something, and what Marshall’s Aunt Betty called ‘rangy.’ The lines on his face made him look old and mean.

“Yeah.” Marshall shook out of Dumbfuck’s grasp and Dumbfuck let him, giving the mailman a shit-eating grin the older black man didn’t return.

“Kids, you know?”

They both ignored him as Marshall turned over the letter and the mailman got out of the little mail car to check the drawers. Marshall took off for school while The Dumbfuck stood there trying to look like he didn’t beat up little kids for fun.

His head still rang a little and the inside of his mouth felt tender, sore. As he walked, Marshall felt along the area with his tongue, wincing at the little stab of pain. All he needed was a Mountain Dew. If he drank enough it numbed the cut pretty quick.

*~*~*~*

Marshall walked in the school with his hood up, trying not to make eye contact as he wove his way to the locker. He didn’t want to look anyone in the face until he saw how bad the hit was. He’d spent one too many times talking to the stupid guidance counselor because he forgot that just because the pain went away or got less it could still look like shit.

“’Sup.” Proof greeted, checking his dreads in his own locker mirror and Marshall grunted as he opened the combination lock.

His eyes found his reflection as soon as the door swung open and he looked at his eyes for a second before tilting his chin to the corner of his mouth.

A red purple bruise showed on the corner and his lips looked swollen there, but not too much. Not enough to ditch. He’d had worse and stayed in class.

He probably knew better than to mouth off to The Dumbfuck but he’d forgotten to steer clear. When he’d been studying with Tay he actually hadn’t been there that much and the Dumbfuck’s shit just rolled off his back because most of the time Marshall’s mind was in one of two places: seeing Tay and waiting to see Tay. He didn’t have that now and everything grated on his nerves like sandpaper, rough and so irritating he wanted to scream. Nothing seemed to chill him out except doing Math, of all the stupid things. As if he kept doing it then things wouldn’t be messed up like they were. Yeah, right.

Proof’s fingers on his jaw surprised him out of his thoughts and then he was caught in Proof’s warm hold, fingertips rough and dry but gentle on his skin. Looking to the side he let Proof lift his head bringing the bruise into the light; heard Proof’s low curse, tight with anger.

Marshall jerked his head away then pulling the hoodie lower around his face and not looking at where Proof stood next to him arms crossed and a dangerous look on his face. Marshall knew that look; he’d seen it since they were kids. Proof’s lips disappeared then lines would show up on each side of his mouth and his eyes got flat and angry. When they’d been in grade school that look meant whoever had made Proof mad was gonna get beat on for sure. Marshall couldn’t do any more about that look now than he could then.

“He do that?” Marshall didn’t have to ask who ‘he’ was.

“I hit myself.”

“You hit yourself.” Proof repeated.

“Yeah, I fuckin’ hit myself.” Marshall said, irritated, throwing him a glance and wondered why Proof didn’t just drop it. They’d had that agreement forever and lately Proof had decided he wasn’t gonna hang with that.

“You wanna cut out?” Proof asked and Marshall thought about it. He didn’t want to go through the day looking like a punching bag but he also had no place to go. The Dumbfuck was at the trailer and too many of Proof’s relatives lived near him to hang out his house. They could take off to the mall or find a park but it was damn cold out. He didn’t even consider Ronnie’s place. Using the house to ditch when Marshall staying in school had been so important to his uncle just felt wrong.

Besides. He’d be behind in Math.

He had turned into a fucking Math geek. For all the good it would do him.

“Naw,” Marshall shook his head with a sigh. “Don’t want to mess up my record more so I can’t play.” Which was true, too.

“I hear you. You wanna hang tonight? Doing a battle at The Shelter.”

“Yeah,” Marshall agreed after a second, “I can do that.”

“For real? Word.” Proof flashed him a wide, white smile and he realized how long it had been since Proof really smiled at him like that. He also realized how careful Proof had been around him since the whole McDonald’s thing and it made him sad and pretty sorry. They’d never handled each other like that, all eggshells and land mines.

But he’d never kept something this big from Proof before; was still keeping it.

“Yeah for real.” Marshall smiled back. The corner of his lip hurt only a little, a steady, faint throb of pain.

“So, uh,” Proof glanced at him as he pulled out the right books for class. “You ain't tutoring no more?”

“Yeah, I am.” Marshall answered and ignored the whispering little voice that pointed out he might never be with Tay that way again. “He’s got a skating competition this week. Ain’t here.”

Proof nodded without looking at him. It’s the closest they had come to talking about that day and it was the closest they were gonna come. The memories of that day still felt raw and open, like the spot inside his lip that he’d bit. Marshall had tried telling himself to just get over it and quit being stupid. That Tay hated him and the deal was over. He couldn’t do it, though. His mind just wouldn’t even compute that.

As of someone or something took pity on him the bell rang and he and Proof knocked knuckles before they went their separate ways.

*~*~*~*~*

He shoulda known that wouldn’t be the end of the shit at the trailer, though.

As he approached the trailer after school, he heard voices yelling from inside and stopped just outside the door. He didn’t even have to press his ear close to hear.

“—you can’t hit him in front of everybody, Dale!!! Someone’s gonna report it and then what am I gonna do?” His mom’s voice had that high, screechy sound she got when she’d started to panic and Marshall closed his eyes, laying his head against the door.

He wanted to talk to Tay so bad it hurt. The feeling just came up in him through his chest, aching and complete so it felt like drowning and he’d sell his fuckin’ soul for one word, one look, one flash of that perfect, perfect smile to erase this ugly screwed up day.
God, he could see Tay in his mind but it wasn’t the same, not even close.

“Quit yer bitchin.’ I hardly touched him and the little shit started it. Fuckin’ nosy assholes around here. Wouldn’t be a problem if you lived somewhere decent.”

“It wouldn’t be a problem if you quit popping him for every little thing!”

“Mouthed off to me. No one talks to me that way, especially not that little fuck. I’m outta here soon as I get my next check.”

Marshall didn’t even have to guess what came next but it still made his skin crawl, made him want to throw up.

“Oh, baby, no, come on.” His mom’s voice changed instantly from high and screechy to low and fake sweet, “That’s not necessary. He probably did set you off…”

Marshall pushed the door open before he had to listen to any more of that nauseating crap and his mom freaked all over again. It was giving Marshall a headache.

“You went to school that way?? What were you thinking??” he felt her plastic dragon lady claws bite into the curve of his jaw as she twisted his head to look at the bruise and Marshall jerked away, scowling. Her nails left lines that prickled on his face.

“What the fuck was I supposed to do? I had class.”

“You ain’t got no class, I’ll vouch for that.” the Dumbfuck said, then cracked his own self up as if that was the funniest shit in the world. Marshall’s hands ached to bitchslap him across his face like he had Marshall that morning, and they weren’t outside now. Only the sudden thought of Nathan, hiding somewhere and probably scared, kept him contained.

“Fuckin’ loser.” But no one could contain his mouth and The Dumbfuck grabbed around his neck with one leather strong nicotine stained hand, the grip so tight that Marshall’s breath started to stutter. His shot his elbow back on instinct and heard the air wheeze out of Dumbfuck’s chest enough for him to get free.

“Little bastard.”

“Stop it! Stop it, Dale!” his mom, the dumb bitch, got in between them and Dumbfuck tried to shove her aside but he still hadn’t caught his breath and he just panted at Marshall, his yellow drunk eyes murderous. Three packs a day would do that do to you.

Marshall felt the adrenalin in the low ceilinged room bank and start to ease down and the relief started his hands shaking. ‘Cause he could see it, how the situation had been getting bad like a loose train going down a rail with no one to stop it, except everything was in slow motion. He’d seen it before, knew the signs and the sick, helpless feeling in his stomach when things started to fall apart in front of him.

“Where’s Nathan?” He asked his mom and she looked at him like he was talking Chinese. “Nathan? Where the hell is he?”

“I…in the back…”

“Fuck.” Marshall headed for the tiny room that Nathan slept in but didn’t see his brother on the bed.

“Nate? Where you at, dawg?” He called softly and listened for crying or the little scared noises his brother sometimes made when he was upset. Not hearing anything he moved to the even tinier laundry area that should have held a washer and drier but they didn’t have one so it was used as another place to clutter up.

“Nathan?” He listened and finally heard a sound from the corner, almost too faint to register.

“That you, man?”

“Marshy?” his brother’s watery voice called out and Marshall lifted an old piece of blue tarp to find Nathan curled up in a ball stuck between a box of old Christmas decorations and a stack of National Enquirers his mom wouldn’t throw away, blue eyes huge and swimming with tears. The kid flew out of the hiding space like he had wings and Marshall caught him in a hug, holding him tight as the little body trembled against him.

“Sssh, it’s okay, I’m here. It’s okay. What happened? Why you hiding?” he asked in his most soothing voice. For a second there was no sound but the continued arguing from the next room and the labored hum of the refrigerator.

“Nate? Did he do something to you?” Marshall pulled Nathan away to look in the tear-stained face. The blue eyes that met his looked scared. “Did mom? Did they hit you?”
He felt the red rage start to simmer in his gut because if either of them lay a hand on Nate Marshall didn’t care who they called or what happened. He was going to fuck them up.

Nathan shook his head, then, “but he did this…” Nate drew his arm back in an exact repeat of the move Dumbfuck used on him this morning, “and he was….yelling and mommy-mommy pushed me away. She s-said go to my room.” The tears started spilling over the long baby lashes and Marshall hugged him tight, giving a breath of relief.

The Dumbfuck had just scared him and Nate never dealt real well when their mom started to lose her shit. It’s as if he could sense that when adults started to freak out it was really bad so he freaked out along with them. Marshall didn’t blame him.

“It’s okay now. It’s okay.” All he could do was repeat that stupid phrase when they both knew different.

“Let’s take you next door, okay? I gotta go to practice.”

“No!” Nathan clung tighter to him and Marshall sighed, already thinking of how the extra time he’d taken meant he was gonna be late already.

“Nate, come on, dawg. You like it next door right? Ms. Stenner got that big TV, remember? You can watch Dog and Chicken.”

“I wanna go with you!”

“You know I can’t do that, a’aight? I gotta practice and I can’t watch you.” Marshall pulled his brother away and flinched at the fresh track of tears that reached his little chin and splashed on the dirty Power Rangers pajama top.

His brother’s hair stuck up in the back as if he’d just gotten up, a streak of something dirtied his right cheek with a stripe of clean down the middle from the tears, and he was barefoot. He wore baggy undies and socks that didn’t match. Fuck, he looked like one of those kids from ‘Feed the Children.’

“I be good, Marshy! I promise!”

“I know, a’aight? But…”

“Please?” A crash from the living room made them both jump and Nate pressed closer as if he was trying to burrow inside the way kangaroo babies did. The trapped whipped puppy look is what did it, the way Nate’s eyes got round and afraid and no kid should look like that no kid. It wasn’t right.

“A’aight, but we gotta hurry ‘cause I’m gonna be late as it is.”

Nathan threw his arms around Marshall’s neck and Marshall patted his back. He got to his feet with Nate’s skinny legs locking around his waist and walked to Nate’s room already thinking of what he needed to take and how maybe he wasn’t gonna make the Shelter after all.

*~*~*~*

His mom and The Dumbfuck had worked themselves up to a real good rhythm by now. They screamed into each others face before the other person even stopped talking and once in a while one of them grabbed something and threw it just for effect. Marshall could not believe they were supposed to be fuckin’ adults.

Holding Nathan in his arms with his backpack and Nate’s Pikachu backpack over one shoulder he stepped into the living room measuring the distance and path to the door. He thought of leaving out the back but this shit could get a whole lot worse if his mom didn’t know where Nate was. He also thought of just holding Nathan’s hand but The Dumbfuck probably wouldn’t come at him with Nate in his arms. Probably.

“Where the fuck are you going?” His mom spat at him, face ugly with anger and strands of blond hair with dark roots falling in her face. He felt Nate cling tighter and bury his face in Marshall’s neck and he shifted his brother to get a better hold.

“I got practice. I’m takin’ him.”

“The fuck you are! You can’t walk around with him and your face looking like that! People are gonna talk.”

“Get back in the room.” The Dumbfuck took a step towards him but Marshall clutched Nathan tighter and just looked in the bloodshot eyes. He put all the cold hate he had in the look, used it like he’d used on Lemon that one day. He did it until doubt started to creep in around the edges of Dumbfuck’s washed out blue eyes then finally sprouted, troubled and uneasy all over his face. Dumbfuck took a step back.

Not dropping Dumbfuck’s eyes Marshall backed up towards the door slowly because he didn’t trust either of them to get behind him.

“You can’t just take him!” his mother’s shout broke the tense quiet but Marshall’s hand had already closed around the doorknob and he walked out slamming the door on her angry voice, “Whadja let him go for???” “He’s your fucking kid!” muffled behind them.

His body picked up the close call before his mind did and the hand that dug in his pocket as he rushed down the steps was shaking.

“We walking Marshy?” Nate asked in his ear, starting to shiver in the cold temperature.

Marshall opened the car door with the key he’d lifted from the table in the hall and plunked Nathan in the front seat along with both backpacks. He’d switch him to the back later so he wouldn’t get a ticket but they needed out of here fast. “Naw, that ain’t fun.”

He shut the door on Nate’s bright smile and ran to get in, revving the car before it was really warmed up. The Impala’s big engine forgave him after a block or two. He ran all the yellows but still showed up fifteen minutes late and he had to get Nate settled on one of the seats with Nate’s coloring book, crayons, toy truck, and one beat up Barney book, the only thing he could grab as they left. He also had to change, so he was working on being half an hour late by the time he stepped on the ice and coach stopped him from falling into place at drill.

“If you practice without warming up it can be dangerous. You know that.” Coach frowned at him and Marshall thought that if he was gonna be kept from practice today he was going to go insane.

“Sorry coach. I kinda had an emergency.”

“It have anything to do with how your face looks?”

“Naw. I ran into a door.”

Coach squinted at him as the others ran through drills and tried to look like they weren’t trying to listen. He saw Coach glance over to the seats where Nathan sat coloring, only his head with its tow-colored hair visible. Nathan waved with a smile and Marshall waved back then brought his hand down, embarrassed.

“Look, Mathers,” aw fuck FUCK he knew what was coming when grownups got that sound to their voice. But Coach didn’t tell him he should talk to a guidance counselor
or start talking about inappropriate responsibilities or any of that shit. He looked like he was going to but then just sighed and scratched his head under the Pistons baseball cap he always wore. “Just don’t make it a habit, alright?”

“I won’t.” Marshall promised even if he wasn’t sure which one the coach meant: being late or bringing Nathan.

“Do two laps of power skating than get in formation.”

He nodded, relief coming over him for the second, or was it third? Time that day. Before he skated away, he turned to the Coach as the big man moved to put his whistle in his mouth.

“Coach?” Coach glanced at him. “Thanks, a’aight?”

Coach’s face still had that unsaid words look to it but he just nodded and motioned to him. “Move your tail.”

Marshall grinned and started the powerskate, finally able to erase everything from his mind except the push of his muscles, his deep breathing, and the soothing, metallic sound of blades on the ice.

*~*~*~*~* LATER

Marshall let himself in the trailer as quietly as he could, thankful that he’d only had a couple of drinks at The Shelter. Even if The Dumbfuck’s crappy truck wasn’t parked out outside his mom could still be on the warpath. Once inside he realized he could have slammed in and turned on the lights and it wouldn’t have mattered. Not to his mom.

She lay sprawled on the sofa in her robe and slippers an almost empty bottle of liquor on the table and an overflowing ashtray emptying its contents on the sofa cushions. The pale top of one breast spilled partially out of the loose robe collar and a cigarette butt hung between two fingers. They were lucky she hadn’t lit the place up so far. And she was passed out on his bed.

Ignoring the uncomfortable flashes of guilt for dropping Nathan off earlier he walked to the tiny room and started to toe off his Jordans, watching his brother as he lay curled under a blanket on the sheetless mattress.

Once he’d gotten down to this boxers and shirt he slipped under the blanket and reached to the floor to pull some more blankets over them. The room was freezing but Nate never seemed to notice; probably one of the reasons the kid always seemed to have a runny nose.

Laying there he tried to sleep but even with the exhaustion of the messed up day weighing on him he still stared into the dark, wide awake.

The only thing he saw in his mind was the article from the newspaper that one of the figure skating moms had tacked up to the bulletin board at the rink.

*~*~*~*~*

Marshall had heard a lot of racket as practice finished up and his eyes caught sight of the article on the bulletin board as he and Nathan walked out to the car.

“LOCAL BOYS MAKE GOOD!” the headline read, but Marshall barely saw it because his eyes couldn’t leave the picture under the title and he thought maybe that sound in his ears was his heart exploding.

The black and white photo showed Tay and Johnny hugging on the ice as an official looking guy in a suit stood next to them smiling. The photographer must have been up in the stands a little because he caught them both good, their profiles laughing; how Johnny’s hand held the back of Tay’s head and Tay held Johnny’s skinny waist with both arms. Marshall couldn’t stop looking at Johnny’s hand buried in Tay’s hair. He knew what it meant when people held each other that way. A weight on his chest grew heavier and his eyes burned as he read that Tay had gotten second place and Johnny third at the competition.

Even through the pain he felt a bright glow of pride. He knew Tay could do it.

“What’s that, Marshy?” Nathan stood on tiptoes trying to see the article.

“Nothing.” Marshall said around the roughness in his throat. He’d picked Nathan up and walked out to the parking lot.

*~*~*

So it’s like that, he told himself in the dark. Tay was back with Johnny. He’d seen them hold hands right out in the fuckin’open and now the picture. Tay hated him and was back with Johnny and there wasn’t one thing Marshall could do about it.

Well, okay. There was one.

Curling up around Nathan’s small, warm body Marshall shut his eyes and let memories crash into him without stopping, without thinking, just images and feelings. Tay’s smile, his warm hands, their safe cocoon in the car when it felt like they were the only two people in the world. He let them come until he shook, teeth gritting, eyes squeezed shut, and let them come some more.

Because tomorrow he was through thinking about them. He wasn’t stupid; he knew when someone laid him off. All he was doing was following Tay around like some stupid puppy hoping Tay would talk to him again, look at him again, touch him one more time.

It wasn’t happening. Period. The sooner he dealt with that the better.

It was just gone.

Marshall held Nathan tight on the pissy mattress in the drafty room and filled the hole in his chest with thoughts of what he’d let go.