Tyler threw his bag down on the bed and sat down next to it with a sigh. His mom, lips pulled sideways in a sympathetic expression, stood in the doorway, shoulder against the doorframe.
This was a single dorm, Tyler’s first in the Catholic boy’s boarding school that had been his ‘home away from home’ for nearly five years now.
Up until now, he’d shared dorms with other boys, rotating rooms every semester. When he’d started in eighth grade, it’d been four-bed dorms. The last semester he’d gotten lucky, scoring a two-bed dorm with Patrick, who was a nice kid and hadn’t made too much noise.
This semester, he’d hit the jackpot. Single-bed dorm, all to himself.
There was a small steel-frame bed, a couple of shelves, a desk and chair set up under the only window, which looked out onto a sad-looking courtyard, a grey concrete scene with a couple of twiggy saplings struggling for life.
A small built in closet for his stuff, and bare white walls. He’d have to cover those up later.
“Think you’ll unpack now? Or wait ‘til later?” his mom asked. Tyler shook his head.
“Later,” he said. “I don’t want to think about it just yet.”
His mom didn’t wear a watch. “What’s the time, sweetheart?”
Tyler glanced at his phone. “Three,” he said. “Just about. Didn’t you wanna get going by quarter past?”
“Yeah,” his mom said, looking apologetic. “It’s a long ride back, that’s all. Don’t want to be driving after dark for too long.”
“That’s fair. Where’s Dad?”
“I think he was talking to your house master? The new guy.”
“What, Mr.. Mr Urine?” Tyler grinned cheekily as his mom shot him a frown.
“Tyler! His name was Mr Euringer. Gosh, I hope you don’t ever call him that.”
“Not to his face, I won’t.”
“Tyler. You’re hopeless.” Her eyes were wide with exasperation, and Tyler couldn’t help but laugh. He slipped past her out of the dorm room, and they started walking together, heading for the front office.
“Sorry, Mom,” Tyler said. “Just kidding.”
“I know.” She gave him a small smile.
She pulled him into a half hug as they walked. “Gosh, I’m going to miss you,” she sighed. “I can never get used to you not being around the house – and we’ve been doing this how long now?”
“Five years, Mom.”
“Five years! And I still can’t deal with it. I’m so glad this is your last semester ever.”
“Yeah,” Tyler snorted. “And then I’m off to college. Even longer between holidays, Mom.”
His mom groaned, pulling a mock sad face.
“Don’t tell me that! That’s the last thing I wanna hear before I’m supposed to leave you here for a whole semester.”
They rounded the corner to the front of the boarding house, approaching the front desk. Tyler’s dad was in front of it, holding handfuls of forms while talking to a skinny guy with straggly black hair who didn’t look like he had any more idea of the purpose of the forms than Tyler’s dad did. A nametag on his too-big button-down white shirt read “Mr. Euringer”.
“Look, sir, Mr. Montano knows more about this stuff than I do, honestly,” the dude was saying in an uncertain voice. “He’s normally in charge of all the admin, logistics and whatever. They didn’t hire me for my filing skills.” He giggled nervously.
Tyler’s dad sighed. He was keeping his cool, but Tyler saw he was struggling to be patient. “Okay, so where can I find Mr. Montano? Someone’s gotta help me out with these things, it’s like trying to read Morse Code. I don’t get any of these questions.”
“Tell me about it! I’m not jealous, I tell ya. He should be in the office, you know where that is?”
“Yeah, I do. Thanks, buddy.”
Tyler’s dad walked past them with a bemused grin, flapping the forms. “I’ll be in the office,” he said, heading past them down the corridor again.
Mr Euringer looked up at them as they approached, forcing a grin on his perplexed face. He looked a bit overwhelmed.
The day before semester started was never a good time to start a new job as a house master at a Catholic boarding school, and Tyler got the impression that Mr Euringer was just now figuring that one out. He half wanted to reassure him that the madness would settle down, once all the kids had signed back in and dorms had been organised and parents had been seen off.
“Hey, guys!” he said. “How can I help you two?”
Tyler’s mom smiled reassuringly. “We’re okay,” she said. “Just waiting for my husband. He was the one just now with the forms; he’s always like that on first day. When he gets back, he and I will be off home, so nothing for you to worry about!”
Mr Euringer’s face melted into relief and he slumped back into his chair. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say a word, a figure rushed past Tyler and slammed their hands down on the desk in front of the house master. Mr Euringer’s face slumped back into misery as a mom Tyler didn’t recognise demanded to know about the orthapedic qualities of school-regulation mattresses.
Tyler’s mom giggled. “Well, we’d better leave him to it,” she said quietly, and she and Tyler walked outside.
They hung out in the courtyard, waiting for Tyler’s dad. The two-storey brick boarding house was built in a sort of U-shape, so half of the rooms had windows facing into the courtyard. Not that it was much of a view. Years ago they’d given up on gardening, and now the only thing growing in the grey concrete was weeds and a couple of sick-looking trees.
Tyler sat down on one of the old wooden benches – he sat carefully, having learned within his first year about the bench’s tendency to splinter. His mom opted to stand, and he didn’t blame her; it took years of experience to learn the best way to sit on the benches without gaining an ass full of splinters. He’d had much more practice.
“What’s your timetable look like?” she asked.
Tyler shrugged. “Chemistry first up tomorrow. I guess we’ll get our assigned lab partners then. Then Art, Algebra, Music... got a double period of music. That’s about all I remember.”
“Many free periods?”
“Not really. Even if I had many, I think they’re gonna be pressuring our asses to study.”
Tyler’s mom frowned. “Pressuring your what?”
Tyler grinned. “Sorry, mom. But yeah, they might get me a tutor this time. Not looking forward to that.”
“You need it, Tyler.” She sighed. “Look.. you know grades aren’t that important to us, we’re not expecting all straight A’s or anything.. but if you want to get into college, you’ve got to try a bit harder. That’s all. That’s what you want, right? To go to college?”
Truth be told, the idea of college was terrifying to him – a year or so ago, he’d figured it was the best idea. But now.. he didn’t even know what he would major in. But he was in too deep now. There didn’t seem to be anything else. He had no other ideas. So.. college it would be. At least until he figured it all out.
That was what college was for, right? Figuring things out?
“If I can’t keep my grades up, I could try for a scholarship,” Tyler reminded his mom. “Lots of places offer basketball scholarships.”
She nodded. “Yeah, if you keep your game up, you could easily get in on scholarship. You can’t just rely on that, though.”
“Yeah.. yeah, I know.”
At last, Tyler’s dad emerged. He’d been relieved of his forms, and he looked glad to be rid of them.
“Okay!” he said cheerily. “Sorry about the delay, folks. But that Mr Montano was super helpful. Would have taken far longer without him.”
The three left the courtyard, and headed across the road to the carpark.
“He’s new too, isn’t he?” Tyler’s mom asked. “He also looked pretty young.”
“Pretty sure both those boys in there are fresh out of teaching college. They don’t look much older than you, Tyler.” He grinned at Tyler. “Don’t give ‘em too much trouble, they’re still in charge.”
“I’ll be on my best behaviour,” Tyler said sweetly, and his dad chuckled.
They reached their car, and as they approached it Tyler felt the familiar pang of sadness sink into his chest.
He’d been doing this for years. Every semester for nearly five years. And he still missed his parents before they even left.
Heck, next year he’d be gone even longer. Depending on where he got in, he might not be able to travel back home for holidays. IF he got in anywhere.
His mom hugged him first. She pulled him in tight, and Tyler could smell her familiar perfume – he’d never known what it was called, what it was even meant to be, but it should have been called “Mom” because that’s what it smelled like. She did that little sigh in her chest, then pulled away quickly.
His dad hugged him next. Tyler did know the name of the aftershave he used, because he’d started wearing it in freshman year when the homesickness got too much. Until one of the nuns confiscated it. He hadn’t worn it since, because he liked it better on his dad anyway. On his dad, it meant home.
Then his dad was pulling away too, and it was time to go, they were saying. Tyler always shut this part out. He smiled and nodded, felt his lips moving, heard himself say things. Goodbye, stay safe on the road. Yes Mom, I’ll study.
No Dad, I won’t harass the nuns, you say this every semester and the joke got old in Freshman year. Say hi to Zack, Jay and Maddie for me.
No, I won’t hang out with that Bert kid.
Yes, I’ll call.
The car pulled away, and Tyler kept waving, kept the smile on his face, until it pulled out of the school gates and disappeared. When he couldn’t see it anymore, his arm dropped. His face hurt.
The sky looked heavy, full of rain.
He walked back to the boarding house.
Last semester already felt like it was going to be the longest.
Tyler was woken up by knocking. It always took him by surprise the first few days of semester; after a holiday of not being woken up by loud rapping on his door followed by Mr Montano’s gruff “Breakfast in ten, Joseph”, the wake-up call was jarring.
He crawled out of the badly made bed – he should have gotten Mom to help him with the sheets before she and Dad left – and pulled on his school uniform. White shirt with the school crest on the pocket. Grey long pants. Black polished shoes. He pulled on the regulation grey jumper over the top and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
He glanced at his phone. 5:45. Breakfast was at six am. It’d end at seven, then the students were expected to study and prepare for school for the next hour. Eight am was first period.
Tyler groaned. He didn’t want to think about Chemistry just yet.
He opened his door, and was faced by a chubby, shorter kid with a sleek black bowl cut. His uniform was too big for him, and he wore the regulation blazer even though there was no need for it. The boy’s piercing hazel eyes were fixed on the iphone in front of his face.
Tyler yawned. “Morning, Gerard. Weren’t you supposed to hand that in last night?”
Gerard looked up, raising an eyebrow. “Yeah? And what’s that in your hand, a fuckin’ Tamagotchi?”
Tyler smirked and elbowed the boy gently. “Whatever. Just remember I’m the one who suggested decoy phones to you.”
The boys were supposed to hand in their phones to the staff every night before bed. What the house staff didn’t know, though, was that most of the boys kept two phones; one was a dummy phone with no sim card, which they obediently handed in to the office.
The second was a real phone. And both boys discreetly pocketed theirs as they approached the front desk, where Mr Montano was taking down the roll.
“How was your holidays?” Tyler asked. Gerard shrugged, looking unimpressed. “Lots of video games. Lots of comics. Someone got goddamned murdered in the park near our street. The usual.”
Gerard, the resident Jersey kid, was tougher than his nerdy outward appearance suggested. The kid listened to Iron Maiden and had a mouth that would embarrass a sailor. Tyler didn’t know if Gerard could actually hold his own in a fight – his pudgy appearance didn’t suggest it – but Gerard had a quiet air of determination that meant Tyler wouldn’t dare test him on it.
He was the kind of kid Tyler would have normally picked on. Tyler, as a basketball jock who listened to R&B and rap, didn’t initially expect the quiet geeky kid who blared heavy metal and hung out with the goth kids to become his best friend.
But then one day in sophomore year, they’d been partnered on an English project, and after a bit of headbutting, decided to write a song for the project.
That afternoon, Tyler had found himself awed by Gerard Way and his ability to make words come alive. Gerard basically wrote the whole song, doing most of the project for the both of them. Tyler just made sure he didn’t include any curse words or blasphemic content; some of the earlier drafts would have had the nuns aghast.
But even the earlier, darker versions had been beautiful; something in it made Tyler want to try writing himself. He wanted to capture some of that way Gerard had with words, make his own living poetry. Tyler spent that whole night writing. He threw most of his attempts in the trash. He was determined to keep going, though. One day he’d be able to tell stories with the same beauty Gerard could, though he suspected his stories would be a bit different.
A couple of days after they turned in the project, two dudes had been harassing Gerard at lunch. Tyler launched himself at them both. Gerard had come away with a black eye, Tyler with a busted lip and skinned knuckles.
Both had been given detentions for the next month, and within a week the two had become fast friends. They’d barely left each other’s side since.
During roll call, another boy sidled up to them – a skinny younger kid with glasses and brown hair. He wordlessly nudged Gerard, who smiled and ruffled the boy’s hair. “Morning, Mikey,” Gerard said.
Mikey nodded at Tyler, who nodded back. He didn’t know Gerard’s younger brother that well. Just knew he hung out with that Pete Wentz kid a lot.
A few other boys gathered around; Pete, who grabbed at Mikey’s arm. Pete brought with him his gang, Andy, Joe, and Patrick, who grinned at Tyler.
A couple of Gerard’s friends approached; Ray, and Frank, who headbutted Gerard with a big smile on his face. Gerard broke into a big grin in response. Something was definitely going on with those two.
As the area around the front desk and doorway filled up, Mr Montano continued calling names.
When he reached the end of the roll and had confirmed the presence of all the boys who’d made it out of bed, he yawned and unlocked the front door.
“Alright, dudes,” he said. In contrast to Mr Euringer, Mr Montano was a stocky bearded man with heavy eyelids that made him look perpetually unimpressed. He was just as unkempt though, with messy black hair and poorly tied tie.
“C’mon, off to the dining hall. I’m tired and hungry, and I’d at least like to only be one of those things by the time classes start.”
Mr Montano and Mr Euringer herded the boys into the chilly morning air and to the dining hall; a big expansive space filled with tables and chairs. One section held a cafeteria-style buffet manned by sleepy-looking kitchen staff.
A long table at the top of the hall was already filled, by the parish staff of the school. Priests and nuns, mostly. And at their head, the headmaster, The Reverend Father Morrison.
Father Morrison was a pale man with a close-shaved head and hard, sharp eyes. Even when he smiled, his eyes remained cold.
He’d been headmaster for the last two years, and Tyler’s unease around the man had only ever grown. He made Tyler nervous.
He never said anything, never raised his voice, always smiled politely. But something about him made the hair on the back of Tyler’s neck stand on end.
Like those eyes were cutting through his brain, seeing everything.
His group nabbed a table close to a space heater, and stood behind their chairs. Nobody was allowed to sit until after morning prayers.
Father Morrison stood up, smiling over the crowd of kids.
“Well, if it isn’t a pleasure to see all your smiling faces!” he said, and his voice – deep and rich, rolling with a heavy Glaswegian accent – echoed throughout the hall.
“It’s a joy to see you all rejuvenated and fresh after your holidays, ready for a new semester of learning and growth. Sadly the holiday is over, and now is the time to put our heads down, work hard. Especially for those senior boys who have their final exams ahead of them; I’ll be praying for you all, for the focus and wisdom you need to stay on track.
“Speaking of prayers, it is time to begin our first morning prayers of the semester! If we could have some silence, boys?”
All the heads in the hall dipped low, and Father Morrison began to pray.
Tyler heard Gerard fidgeting next to him. The kid had been an atheist the whole time Tyler had known him, and never had patience for the prayers.
Tyler.. was less certain.
A few years ago, he would have proudly called himself a devout Christian, but lately, the questions he’d been asking didn’t seem to have answers in the Bible. He’d flipped through the pages countless times, but all he’d gotten was a growing sense of dread. The words once so familiar had become alien to him.
He’d talked to Father Morrison about it. Some of the nuns. But they never had the answers. They just smiled and told him to keep praying; God knew. God would give him clarity. God would show him the answers.
But he’d been looking. He’d been praying.
And he’d found nothing.
All he had now was a sense of discomfort and emptiness while Father Morrison prayed. His words should have filled him up, given him comfort. But instead they felt false and hollow. Was this what Gerard normally felt?
Tyler sighed and shut his eyes. Once upon a time, he’d actually enjoyed morning prayers. Not anymore, it seemed.
Tyler didn’t have Chemistry with Gerard, so he was on his own when he arrived at class. To his dismay, the class had filled up quickly; the only seat left was at the front, next to some kid he didn’t really know.
Tyler was pretty sure he was called Josh, and he’d never heard the boy speak.
He had dark hair flat-ironed straight over his forehead, and hunched down in his seat like he was half-asleep. He probably was, Tyler wouldn’t blame him; it was too early.
He sat down, and Josh glanced up. He looked back down just as quickly.
The teacher swept into the room; a nun with stray curls of bright pink hair peeking out from under their wimple. Tyler had them last year, and they were a bit strange; their name was Sister Lola, and they insisted on being addressed with they/them pronouns, and being called just Lola instead of ‘Sister’.
Tyler didn’t quite get it, but he knew Gerard adored them. Besides, Lola was one of the cooler teachers. So he pressed on with the pronouns, and while it’d taken him a while to get used to it, he’d pretty much gotten it now.
Lola called the roll. When Josh’s name was called, his arm shot up, signalling his presence wordlessly.
Lola called Tyler’s name several names after Josh, and smiled when Tyler called “Here”. Clearly they remembered him from the year before, despite not teaching Tyler last semester. That was handy. He was going to need all the teacher’s pet points he could get if he was gonna scrape through Chem.
“Alright, so first things first, I’ll get lab partners out of the way,” Lola said. They had a soft voice, and didn’t talk a lot if they could help it. That didn’t seem to cause any problems with Lola’s teaching, though. When Tyler had them last year, their class was pretty quiet, so Lola never had to raise their voice anyway.
Lola pulled out another list. “So your lab partner is going to be your partner in all your projects until end of semester,” they said. “So it’s pretty important you can co-operate and work together. And you have to be doing equal amounts of work; I’m going to be assessing each of you individually.”
They looked up with eyebrows raised. “So no slacking off while your partner slaves over your projects. Also, if you have any issues with your partner and think you’d work better with someone else, please come to me at the end of class – the END, mind you. Be polite about it. Don’t whinge about getting partnered with someone you don’t like in front of your partner, that’s just rude.”
Lola began reading off pairs, and Tyler almost didn’t register when they called his name.
“Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph,” Lola called.
Tyler blinked, and glanced at the boy next to him.
Josh had a bewildered look on his face. “Well, at least we don’t have to move seats,” he said nervously.
Lab partners, huh. Tyler regarded the boy with a bit more interest now.
He didn’t look stupid, which was a good start; he didn’t scream nerd either, though, so Tyler had no idea if this kid would turn out to be a Chem whiz or not.
He had a gold chain tucked into the collar of his shirt, the top of a cross peeking out. His lips looked chewed. He laced and unlaced his fingers, making fists, pressing thumbs into palms. A fidgeter.
Since the seat next to him had been empty when Tyler was the last person to get to class, Tyler could presume he didn’t have many friends. Certainly none in Chem class.
He looked the model of a good quiet god-fearing Christian boy, with maybe the exception of the badly-straightened hair.
Tyler gave him a smile. “Yeah, definitely saves having to shuffle around like idiots,” he said, and Josh laughed, smiling widely.
And oh god, his teeth.
He paid a bit more attention now, noticing the curve of muscles under Josh’s school jumper. Dark, brown eyes.
Josh awkwardly held his hand out. “Um, not that Lola didn’t already basically announce it before, but I’m Josh,” he said.
Tyler smiled and took his hand. Josh had a nice grip. Good, good. He was liking his new lab partner already.
“I’m Tyler, I don’t think we’ve really talked before, but it’s nice to talk to you now,” he said, and Josh positively beamed.
Tyler was still grinning when he released Josh’s hand and leaned back into his seat to pay attention to Lola’s class. Well, half-pay attention. His mind was mostly fixed on the quiet, fidgeting boy next to him.
Screw the grades. Chemistry was going to be great.