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The Lost Boy

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The idea doesn't leave him, lingers and haunts him as he trips over his words, over his tongue, over the edges of the church steps. Matt's parents didn't ask him to be a pallbearer, and Jack's grateful for it--he'd never be able to say no, and he can't feel his legs, isn't sure how he's moving from place to place.

He spends most of the funeral feeling nauseated and looking at the front right corner of the church, wishing he was anywhere except the fourteenth row back, trying not to look at his mother because she's looking at him, as if she can see his heart breaking.

Jack isn't sure what he said, but he knows it must have been good, because lots of people come to say "Thank you for your kind words" and "That was beautiful, Jack," at the wake. Mostly, he spends his time in the bathroom, trying not to throw up.

*

It takes him six weeks to reach the conclusion that he's furious.

He celebrates this realization by going to school and going about his normal life. That night, he tells Bobby to shut up six times and on the fifth time he punches a hole through the wall and busts three knuckles. He locks himself into the bathroom and tapes himself up, making up plausible excuses and blaming Matt.

Jack's gotten used to the idea of being left behind--doesn't mean he's happy about it.

*

Death is terrible, it's a short stop, the big sleep, and the end, but never really, because there is always somebody left behind. Jack thinks about Mr. and Mrs. Kramer, who didn't know what to do but miss their son anyway, because Jack still loves his own mother, and she's far more fucked up than Matt could ever be. Jack thinks about the people who have never thought about death, and who sat in the grief circle frozen and shocked, realizing for the first time that life is not high school, and that maybe it's not supposed to work out for the best.

Jack thinks about himself, about meeting Matt for the first time and being friends for a long time. He thinks about the terrible double-date and the way that Matt seemed to light up when Jack tried to make him happy--it's gratifying and glorious in retrospect, the kind of thing that makes a person feel like they were meant to be alive. There's nothing more amazing than making another human being happy.

But Jack thinks about the locker room, about Matt's face contorted by his own secrets and his eyes red and his mouth crumbling and his whole body caving in from shame.

Yeah--there's nothing like making another person happy. There's nothing like knowing he didn't.

*

His mother relapses, and Jack doesn't blame her. He can't stand the opiate smoke of it but for once he's glad to have somebody to hate other than himself, and the seventh week after Matt ruined everything Jack stares at himself in the mirror and asks himself if being straight was so important--if, had he known then, would he have reacted as poorly as he did. If, knowing, the alternatives, he could have just leaned in and kissed Matt, pressed their mouths together like CPR. Jack's done worse, he's done better, but the sticking point it, the thing that gets him every time, is that he did nothing at all.

*

Jack's girlfriend tries to help him, wants to act supportive, but all Jack can think of when he sees her bright, blond hair is the way that Matt must have seen her now. He tells her he wants to be alone for a little while, and she's understanding at first. After a while, she seems to forget him, and Jack wonders if what Matt said that night was true, if she takes him for granted or never understood him at all. It doesn't matter now, but it's something to distract him.

Bobby is extra annoying, and if Jack used to think that his little brother got on his nerves, he's never seen the depth of Bobby's evil. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knows that Bobby's doing it because he's afraid, because Jack's acting strange and because he's always got this cloud over his head--darker and heavier and thicker than before, and Bobby can't see the silver lining anymore. Jack doesn't have the heart to tell him there isn't one, and Bobby keeps getting in his face, asking for a black eye, and that distracts him, too.

But Jack really can't walk away from it, because every time he sees he sees Jimmy he thinks about it. Every time he changes the channel it's there, some sort of after-school special or a re-run of Will and Grace. And because being gay wasn't all that Matt was, Jack sees him other places, too, at school, during practice, in the way that sometimes he'll stare out into nowhere and wonder what the hell Matt's doing, and where he's been lately, only to remember hours later that Matt's been pretty stationary recently, been a little bit preoccupied.

Mostly, Jack remembers everything, and mostly it stays there, like a cut that isn't healing across his chest--and it aches every time Jack reaches his hands out, every time he tries to move.

*

Jack's in high school, so hearing the word "fag" in the locker room isn't that out of place.

He's got no real excuse for flipping out, for slamming Dan Walton into a row of lockers and going postal until the coach drags them apart. Jack's a valuable team asset, and everybody knows he's been a little bit of a loose cannon recently, so Dan says, "Hey, cool it, fucker," and the coach says, "Go home, McAllister, come back when you're more even-headed."

He makes it all the way to his kitchen before he slides down against the back door and gasps for air, sobs and fights for every gulping breath, because his heart might be breaking and he doesn't know what to do. The whole world has tilted and Jack can't maintain his balance.

And in his head, long after his mother has found him and helped him to his bed, pulled off his shoes and given him a Nyquil tablet is the thought of Matt, helpless with shipwrecked eyes, like he was saying to Jack, "Save me. Please save me."

He wakes up when it's already dark outside, and Bobby's sitting at the foot of his bed.

"What the hell are you doing?" Jack croaks.

"You made me promise to tell you if something was wrong," Bobby says, and Jack hears the shakes in his voice, feels his heart race out of his chest, and looks for guidance, looks for it in the edges of his awareness, still numbed-out by medication.

"What's wrong?" Jack demands, and he can hear his voice slurring. "What's wrong?"

And Bobby doesn't cry, but Jack figures it's a near thing, because his little brother is old enough so that he doesn't need to turn away when he's talking.

"You'd tell me, too, right?" Bobby asks, and it sounds like he's begging. "Tell me."

Jack closes his eyes and feels himself losing hold on wakefulness, pulled down to sleep by black fingers, and from the periphery of his vision he can see his mother's shadow in the doorway, hesitating because she's frightened, too, maybe scared the same way Bobby is, maybe scared the same way Jack is.

He's not making anything better, he's making it worse, and Jack keeps waiting for television to happen, for miracles to occur, for time to turn back on itself so that he can grab Matt's hand, because he shouldn't have taken no for an answer, then, he should have said, "It's okay, it's okay with me," no matter the consequences because life is precious, and Jack sees that now that it's too late.

I'm fine, Jack wants to say, because Bobby may be a little shit but he's still Jack's little shit, but his mother is already stepping into the room, folding his little brother into her arms and Jack is falling asleep again, loosing his grip.

The last thing that Jack hears is Bobby saying, "Please, please, please."

*

It never stops surprising him, even months later, when most everybody else has moved past it, treats it like a fold in an otherwise spotless existence. Sometimes, Jack still stumbles on it, becomes profoundly aware that he's missing something, and feels around his pockets and looks around his room for minutes in distraction until he realizes that he'll never again lay his hands on what's gone, that life is not tangible, nor corporeal, but simply a movement in a certain direction, and Matt decided to make his a line segment instead of a ray.

And in between being fine and being guilty and being grieved Jack is busy being angry, in a hot, constrictive way that makes his chest tight and his blood rush. He thinks about all the other options, how it might have been harder but this was the hardest thing of all. He thinks about Matt's 4.0 and his flat belly, which Jack knows for a fact guys envied all over the school, and knows that all of it was shit, that none of it mattered, that it should have been different.

But mostly Jack spends his time like he would have anyway--same but different. Death is a limiting factor for the survivors, just a film pressed messily onto their pre-existing experience, a wash of color bleeding into the corners, some more intense, others barely-there, and Jack can go weeks without thinking about it and then be wrought by it, broken down to pieces.

He doesn't start a club for gay and lesbian teenagers, and he doesn't volunteer with the local crisis hotline. Jack doesn't do anything to make the world better for everybody left in it because it feels like a poor repayment for what Matt showed him, it doesn't feel like enough.

So Jack makes himself scarce, is ordinary and good, because that's what Matt wanted for him, and Jack can do that at least, even if he couldn't do what was necessary, what was best.

And most of all, Jack keep's Matt's secrets, holds them tight and near to his heart. He'll carry them, for however long he can, because it's what he should have said then, what he should have done then when Matt couldn't carry them alone.

"You seem better," Bobby tells him one night.

Jack rolls his eyes. "I've been fine forever."

"You're different, though," Bobby assures him, like Jack doesn't already know.

"It's fine," Jack says, closing his eyes. "It's all fine. I just have to do this thing. That's all."

Bobby nods and after a beat, asks, "You will though, won't you? Tell me things?"

It makes Jack laugh, makes him unbearably honest for a moment, and he ruffles his brother's hair.

Bobby must take that for a "yes," because he doesn't ask anymore, and late at night, when there's nobody watching, Jack cards through Matt's secrets, files them carefully over and over again, because they're his now, and that's something at least.