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Counting to Fifteen

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Philip sat, counting his quarters silently, his lips moving as he made piles to signify dollars. His shoulders sagged as there weren’t nearly as much as he’d hoped there would be, considering he spent hours walking the streets, picking up any money that he could find. He sighed in frustration, biting his lip as he stared down at the meager amount he’d amassed in his afternoon. He’d forgone school, again, in case his mom needed him. At this point he was pretty sure she would always need him, but with a dreary, far off look she told him that she didn’t.

 

His stomach rumbled as he clutched it, his face in a grimace. He hadn’t eaten in what felt like days, but he recalled he’d had the rest of a bag of chips the day before. His mom had gone without food longer, preferring to satiate her needs with a needle. Philip closed his eyes, trying to center himself. Beside him, he had a bag of laundry. He wanted to wash his clothes, they desperately needed it, but his stomach pained him with how hungry he was. Carefully, Philip gathered his coins that he’d spread out on the table, shoveling them into his jeans pocket.

 

Across the street was a McDonald’s, which made his mouth water as he picked up his laundry bag, which also happened to be his pillow case. He bought two dollar menu burgers, because he didn’t have enough for three because of tax, and ate one immediately, inhaling it almost in one bite. He kept the second, bringing it home for his mom.

 

The door was unlocked because the latch was broken; one of his mother’s exes had broken it months prior when he’d been angry. He hadn’t the extra money to fix it, so Philip didn’t think twice about the fact that the door was ajar when he came home. Inside, his mother wasn’t alone, though she looked to be passed out.

 

Beside her on the couch was a man. He had a sallow look about him, his cheeks sunken in and face withered. Philip didn’t react, his face set impassively as the man looked him over, lifting an eyebrow at him. Philip pretended he wasn’t there, despite the fact that their eyes followed Philip as he walked across the room towards his mother.

 

“Mom,” Philip whispered as he crouched down in front of her. She didn’t answer.

 

“What are you doing?” The man beside her asked. Philip ignored him, his eyes trailing to the needle in his hand. Philip knew better than to call attention to it, so he didn’t.

 

“She’s got to eat,” Philip said, mostly to himself. He put the burger on her leg as he cupped her face. “Mom,” he tried again. “I brought you food.” His mom’s eyes opened, her lips quirking upwards in a half smile that barely registered. Her eyes were distant, she wasn’t really here. He unwrapped the burger, putting it in her hands. “Please,” he pleaded.

 

“Give me that,” the man said, reaching for the burger. Philip pushed at him as his stomach growled again. “Don’t try me, boy.”

 

“It’s for her, not you,” Philip sneered, unable to help himself. He wasn’t about to let someone else take what he’d given her. Next thing Philip knew, he was on the ground, curled up as the man stood over him. He’d been knocked over, but not hurt. He’d reacted, pulling himself inward, protecting his head before he was kicked.

 

Above him, nothing happened. When Philip looked up, the burger was in the man’s hand, half eaten. Tears welled up in Philip’s eyes.

 

“It was for her,” he said, barely above a whisper.

 

He’d been twelve.

 

-

 

“Philip,” Helen said, her eyebrows lifted as she leaned forward to get his attention. Philip breathed in, his eyes blinking as he stopped daydreaming. In front of them were three full meals from McDonald’s, brought to the sheriff’s station by Gabe for Friday night dinner as a treat. Philip hadn’t touched his yet. “Did you want something else?”

Gabe held up a mini ketchup packet, as if that had been what was keeping Philip from eating it. Philip took the ketchup packet without a word as he shook his head to Helen’s question.

 

“No, this is great, thank you,” he said as he squirted the ketchup onto his quarter pounder sandwich. It wasn’t even a dollar menu burger, but the real deal. Philip bit into it, his eyes closing as he held back memories. “I haven’t had this in a long time,” he told her, his voice sounding normal, surprisingly. He was good at making his voice sound like nothing was wrong. He took a drink of his soda, then ate a fry like it wasn’t a big deal.

 

He’d been in their care for a week, and all he could do was think about his mom, how she was doing without him. He wanted to call her, but the judge wouldn’t let him. He ate another fry.

 

“What is your favorite food?” Gabe asked Philip, like he’d have one. Philip looked between them, shrugging once as he ate another fry so he wouldn’t have to answer. He wanted to say: food. Food was his favorite kind of food, but that would only make his mother sound worse to them. He needed to show them, somehow, that his mother wasn’t just a junkie. She loved him, and he loved her. Sometimes, that was all he had, just knowing that one thing.

 

“I like--” he had to think about it. He smiled. “Tootsie Rolls.”

 

Helen looked at him like he was daft, while Gabe smiled warmly.

 

“That’s not really a food, is it?” Helen asked in jest. Philip looked down at his hands, which were in his lap. He hadn’t taken another bite of his burger, yet.

 

Gabe laughed at Helen, but made sure that Philip knew that it wasn’t at him, not really. Philip made sure to smile, though he didn’t think it was funny.

 

“To me it is,” he said in a non answer. Tootsie Rolls reminded him of his mom, before. “They’re my favorite.”

 

“Well,” Gabe said as he pat Philip on the shoulder, “how about you and I head to the store after this and get a bag?” Philip shrugged his shoulder, ripping part of his burger apart, then eating that bite. He didn’t know why he did it, but he repeated the movement. “Only if you want some.”

 

Philip swallowed his bite, unable to look at either of them. He liked Gabe, and Helen was nice enough to him but he felt as though this all would be ripped from him within the blink of an eye. In a way, he wanted it to be. He wanted to go home, he wanted the city and his mom. He looked at the food in front of him, then to Gabe and Helen before taking a big bite of his burger.

 

What he didn’t want was to ever go hungry again.

 

-

 

“Are you sure that you don’t need anything else?” Helen asked. They were at Walmart, which was the biggest store within an hour and a half. Philip looked at the cart: it was full of stuff for him. It had socks, underwear, jeans, shirts, shaving cream, a toothbrush, and even dental floss. Philip brushed his tongue across his teeth. He didn’t think he’d ever really used it.

 

“Whatever you want to get me,” Philip said. “I can--” he thought for a moment, before he continued his sentence. “I can do more chores, or something.” He had his hands stuffed in his pockets. They’d picked him up the day before from the foster home, and all he’d had on him was what could fit in his tattered old backpack. He looked in the cart, his eyes catching on a new one. He frowned. His mom had bought his, and when it was new, it’d been his favorite color. The one in the cart was a blue, a bright cobalt color.

 

“Sure, if you want,” Helen said, the look on her face telling Philip that he’d said something wrong. “But we all share the chores in our house.”

 

“Yeah, that’s right,” Gabe said, walking up with a few other cleaning supplies for the house, along with a set of sheets and a few towels. “Helen won’t let me off of dishes duty that easy.”

 

Philip supposed it was a joke, so he smiled.

 

“Can I get a different backpack?” He asked, his hand on the cobalt one. Helen looked at it, then at him.

 

“If you want,” she said like it didn’t matter. Philip felt like it did. He picked it up, then started walking back to where she’d picked it out for him. He stood there, staring at all his choices as he took his phone out, his hand shaking. He had texts waiting for him. His stomach sank, his breathing quickened.

 

“Hey, Philip--”

 

Philip jumped, his eyes wide. He hadn’t noticed that Gabe had approached him.

 

“Everything okay?” Gabe asked, concerned. Philip nodded his head, pocketing his phone, then grabbing a random bag, something more neutral toned.

 

“Yeah,” Philip said, carding his fingers through his hair, shrugging. “Everything’s great. I just didn’t want something so bright, you know?”

 

“Not a fan of bright blue?” Gabe asked as he put his hand on Philip’s back, guiding him back to the cart.

 

“Not really,” Philip mumbled, trying not to think about Gabe’s hand on him. Before yesterday, he couldn’t remember being touched so casually, with no connotation behind it.

 

“Does that mean you want a different toothbrush as well? I think yours is blue.”

 

“The toothbrush can stay,” Philip said, allowing himself a short laugh. “I don’t care about my toothbrush color.”

 

-

 

“Twenty,” Philip said as he leaned closer, one eyebrow lifted.

 

“That all?” The man asked him as he opened his wallet, showing Philip he had more to offer. Philip shrugged, confident in himself. He thought of the hole in his jeans, how one of his shoes’ soles had been worn through to the bottom; how his mom needed money. “What about a hundred for--”

 

“A hundred for you to touch me,” he said, setting the terms. “Twenty was only for me to blow you.”

 

“Deal,” the man said. Philip grinned, his hand reaching for the proffered money. He always got the cash before getting into the car. He counted them, twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, one hundred, before opening the passenger side door and getting in. He didn’t bother putting a seatbelt on.

 

-

 

The first time Philip was taken away from his mom, he cried. He cried because she stood there, in front of their apartment, and couldn’t look at him as he was carried away. His memories afterwards, about the family that took him in, and the social worker that took him, were barely there, but he would always remember calling out for his mom, his hand reaching out for her. All he had with him was his blanket, then, as he clutched it tight when he realized his mom wasn’t going to help him.

 

The second time, he’d gotten to hug her goodbye.

 

“I’ll be back,” he promised her. This time, she had tears in her eyes. “You need this more than me,” he said, giving her his blanket before the social worker took his hand and led him to the car.

 

The third, it was his mom who made promises.

 

“I’ll get better this time,” she’d told him. She told the judge, because she was out of chances. Philip wasn’t sure if she loved him enough, or if it was even love that could even help his mom at this point. All he knew was that he’d failed her. He’d failed her because he wasn’t enough, couldn’t take care of her, he couldn’t keep her clean on his own.

 

Looking back on it, he thought he could save her by giving her his blanket, by handing over what was dearest to him, that it would somehow make her stronger. In the end, it only made him miss her more.

 

Now, Philip looked at his phone with missed calls and texts from former Johns, regulars who wanted more from him than he was willing to give them, but he’d teased and asked for more money for blow jobs and a chance for them to do the same for him. He’d done all he could to get her the money she needed for rent, for food for them, even for drugs.

 

He stared down at the phone, slowly deleting message after message, blocking the numbers that he no longer needed.

 

“No more,” Philip said to himself. He sighed, biting his bottom lip as he finished.

 

“No more what?” Gabe asked at the door. Philip jolted, dropping his phone as he looked over at his foster father. “Sorry to scare you, I did knock though.”

 

“Oh,” Philp said, giving him a smile. “I didn’t hear you.”

 

“What were you--”

 

“Do you want to--”

 

They both went silent, Philip because he’d cut off Gabe’s question that he didn’t want to lie about, and Gabe probably because he wanted to hear what Philip wanted to do. He’d been in Tivoli for weeks and he felt so, so alone. He didn’t belong here, in the country. He belonged in the city, he belonged with his mom. Philip grasped his phone tight, swallowing back the bad taste in his mouth that came along with the memories he’d pushed down as he deleted and blocked his life in the city away. He didn’t have friends, he had frequent rides around the block.

 

Here, in Tivoli, a trip around the block meant fresh air, going to the post office, bringing Helen dinner, or renting a movie.

 

“Do I want to what?” Gabe asked, prompting Philip.

 

“Do you want to... have you ever made pancakes?” Philip asked, because it was the first thing that came to his mind. Gabe smiled at him, like he always did, like Philip was something to smile about.

 

“Yeah, I’ve made pancakes. Have you?”

 

“No,” Philip said with a laugh, rather self-deprecating. Instead of laughing with him, Gabe crossed his arms, tilting his head as he assessed the information. Philip sighed as he stood up. He evaded the question about his phone, but made his mom look like she wasn’t a good one in Gabe’s eyes once more.

 

“I was more of an Eggo kid,” Philip confessed.

 

“Ah, a waffle man. Well, we do have a waffle maker somewhere around here.” Philip lifted an eyebrow.

 

“You can make waffles,” he stated. “From scratch.”

 

“You bet your ass I can,” he laughed. Philip couldn’t help but relax, the tension in the room easing. “How about we do breakfast for dinner? Surprise Helen with waffles.”

 

“The kind with whipped cream?” Phlip asked hopefully. “Like in the movies.”

 

“Like in the movies,” Gabe said, waving Philip to come join him in the search for the waffle maker.

 

-

 

Philip sat, alone, on the floor with his blanket in his lap, watching Sesame Street, his body bobbing along to the Count as he sang about counting numbers. In his hands he held an Eggo waffle, half eaten as he half chewed, half sang along to the song. He’d woken up to an empty house, but didn’t think much about it because he had Eggos to eat, and Sesame Street to watch, even if it was a little fuzzy on the screen.

 

-

 

Philip sat, watching a boy on his motorbike ride around, doing tricks. He smiled to himself from under the tree he rested against, enjoying the screams of joy coming from the driver when something went especially well. Philip had never really watched the sport before, but found it interesting enough. He watched from afar, not really wanting more than to observe. If the other boy saw him, they didn’t acknowledge it.

 

Eventually, others came to meet him. Philip had been fine not knowing who was beneath the helmet, his imagination running away with him, but when he did, Philip held his breath. It was Lukas from school. They had more than a few classes together, thanks to it being a village with a small population. He recognized everyone in his friend group as well, but when one of the girls stepped forward and kissed Lukas, Philip sighed. He closed his eyes, then gathered his things.

 

One thing about being in a small town in the middle of nowhere was that, even though Philip wasn’t really out, he wasn’t really in the closet either back in the city. Here, everything was different. It felt suffocating in a way that Philip hadn’t expected. As he walked away from the echoing laughter that came from the group of friends, Philip looked down at his phone. He had no messages waiting for him, but he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t ever have any message waiting for him like he used to, with a street address and a time, sometimes with a dollar amount. He couldn’t have that here, where no one lingered on street corners. He couldn’t pick up, not when Helen was his foster mother, and a sheriff. That life was over now.

 

Philip felt alone, almost unbearably so, as he walked his bike down the main street of Tivoli. He gripped the handlebars tight as he walked slowly, dodging families who walked together and people running afternoon errands before the shops closed unbelievably early.

 

With nothing else to do, Philip stopped at the Sheriff’s office. Every other time he’d gone, it had been empty except for Helen and Tony, but this time it wasn’t. He was barely in the door before he turned back around, because someone had been filing a report. It didn’t feel right to loiter.

 

Sighing, Philip sat on the bench outside, waiting for them to leave. A car drove down the street, music blaring, laughter barely heard over it. He looked up at the car full of teenagers, Lukas being one of them. Their eyes met for a moment, but Philip was pretty sure he’d imagined it.

 

-

 

No one John stood out to Philip. He didn’t have horror stories, not like he’d thought he’d have when he started. They were nameless, almost faceless when he thought back to them. What he recalled most was the cars themselves. The tan Sedan who liked when he went slow with his hand, the black Escapade who paid Philip extra to kiss him after, the white Taurus who always told him that he liked his mouth.

 

He recalled the feel of their fingers in his hair, the sighs they made, the feel of the leather seats as he leaned over the center console, how some of them kept the radio on and some of them preferred silence. Philip missed things, which he didn’t think he would. He missed how his jaw was sore after, the feel of his lips when they were red and swollen from blowing multiple people in a night. He missed when they tugged his hair, when they touched his back, rubbing it as he blew them. He liked when they ran their fingers through his hair when he did a good job.

 

He missed being touched.

 

-

 

“Hey.”

 

Philip had been sitting by the tree again, reading a book he’d found at a used bookstore in Red Hook after school the day before. He looked up to find Lukas standing over him.

 

“Hi,” Philip said, closing his book. He squinted up at Lukas, giving him a smile. Lukas had his riding gear on, his helmet in his hands.

 

“You, uh -- you into motocross?” Lukas asked him. Philip shrugged, then decided to nod his head because of how Lukas’ eyes almost pleaded with him to say yes.

 

“Yeah, totally,” Philip said, because it was what Lukas wanted to hear.

 

“You wanna go for a ride?” Lukas offered. Philip hadn’t realized Lukas had a second helmet with him, but as soon as he asked Philip saw it.

 

“Sure,” Philip said with a grin.

 

-

 

“Philip, you in there?” Gabe asked. Philip’s mind had been somewhere else while they were seated at dinner.

 

“Sorry,” Philip said as he took a bite of food. He’d been thinking of the ride he’d taken with Lukas, how it felt to have his arms around Lukas as he held on. He licked his lips before taking a breath. “What did you say?”

 

“I said, why not you and I go out on my boat later?” Gabe asked. Philip made a face. “Or not.”

 

“I just -- I’ve never been on a boat,” Philip said, embarrassed.

 

“Well, we live on a lake, it would be a good time to try it out.”

 

“Sure,” Philip said, because Gabe wanted him to. He didn’t want to be a bother. “If you have time.”

 

“Of course,” Gabe said. Philip pushed the food on his plate around, unable to stop thinking about Lukas’ laugh, or how he’d asked if Philip wanted to hang out again tomorrow. They’d talked for hours after riding, and Philip couldn’t remember the last time someone talked to him like he was a human being, a normal kid. It wasn’t like how Gabe and Helen talked to him, like he would break.

 

“Anytime, but I’ve got a lot of homework,” Philip said as he put his napkin over his food. “May I... can I be excused?”

 

“Yes, you may,” Helen said with a smile. Philip gave her one in return as he took his dishes to the sink, rinsing them off before putting them in them in the dishwasher. He took the stairs two at a time, going into his room and locking the door. He didn’t think as he kicked off his shoes, pulling off his shirt and hoodie at the same time. He didn’t think as he fell down onto his bed, unbuttoning his jeans and shoving them down his thighs, hooking his fingers under his boxer briefs, sliding them down enough so that he could get to his growing erection. He sighed as soon as he was in his own hand, the feel of it as he began to jack off. He pictured Lukas, at first. He tried to remember how it felt to have his arms around him, how good he smelled, the look of his lips as they talked.

 

But then he remembered the others. He remembered the feel of their hands on him instead, of their hands on his head, pushing him down. Philip cried out, gasping as he came in his hand, making a mess on his stomach.

 

“Fuck,” Philip whispered as he sat up. He felt broken, like he should be getting off to Lukas, wanted to get off to Lukas, but instead he thought about big hands and harsh words. “I’m so fucking messed up.”

 

It didn’t matter anyways, really. It wasn’t like Lukas would like him, could like him. He was rich, had to be because he had that motor bike. He wouldn’t like Philip, because Philip wasn’t someone that pretty rich boys liked. They liked girls who would put out, girls that they could be seen with at school. It didn’t matter who Philip jacked off to, because it was all in his head.

 

-

 

Philip laughed as his mom pushed him on the swing. It was cold out, but they didn’t care as he swung higher and higher with each push. They’d already gone on the see-saw, played on the jungle gym and the big tire swing, but the normal ones were Philip’s favorite. He’d let his mom go first, as he tried to push her on the swing, but he wasn’t much help.

 

“Higher!” he shouted, his legs kicking to make himself go faster. He turned to look at her, her smile wide as she pushed him again. He grinned back at her as he tried to go even higher, to reach the sky. He held on tighter.

 

“Jump, baby!” She said with a laugh, and he did.

 

-

 

Sometimes, Philip got angry. It took a lot to set him off, and most of the time it didn’t make sense to him what was happening until he felt like all he wanted to was run out of the house and scream out into the nothingness that surrounded their house. It wasn’t his house, but a place he was living. His home was in the city; his home was Queens. It wasn’t Tivoli, it wasn’t the house by the lake, surrounded by farmland.

 

Philip clenched his jaw as he sat watching a movie with Gabe and Helen, a weekly tradition, along with what felt like a million other weekly traditions that he felt like they made up when he got here. Helen was on the floor in front of Gabe, getting a back massage. They were always touching each other, always leaning into each other’s space and it bothered Philip. It bothered him but he wasn’t sure why. He tried not to watch, because it felt private in a way, even though it wasn’t at all sexual. He tried to concentrate on the movie, but couldn’t. He closed his eyes, trying to imagine his mom and dad doing what Gabe and Helen were doing, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t imagine anything.

 

Because that wasn’t his reality.

 

He thought about Lukas, about maybe touching him like that, but it didn’t fit either. Nothing fit.

 

“I’m not feeling good,” Philip heard himself saying. “I think I’m just going to go to bed.”

 

“You need some medicine?” Helen asked as Philip stood up. “There’s some in the medicine cabinet in our bathroom if you need it.”

 

“Thanks,” Philip said as he practically ran up the stairs. He didn’t take medicine, not unless absolutely necessary.

 

He shut his door and locked it, even though Helen told him she didn’t want him locking the door. Gabe disagreed, saying that if Philip wanted privacy he should have it. Groaning, Philip unlocked the door, but kept it closed. He curled up in his bed, checking his phone. He smiled to himself when he saw that Lukas had texted him. It was about motocross, but that didn’t matter. He responded, taking a deep breath.

 

He shouldn’t be irritated that Gabe and Helen touched each other, that was normal. It was a normal thing to do, especially if people were married. Closing his eyes, Philip spread his body out across his bed, his hands palms up as he tried to relax. He thought about touch, the feel of his mom’s hair in his hands, how her hand felt in his. Philip covered his eyes with his hand, biting his lip. He remembered the feel of her body when she’d been passed out, when he had called 911 because he hadn’t felt a pulse. She’d been lighter than he thought she would be as he’d hauled her into the bathroom, trying to wake her.

 

His phone ringing broke the memory, shattering it to pieces as he sat up, wiping at his eyes. Lukas’ number lit up the screen.

 

“Hey,” Philip said, clearing his throat. “What’s going on?”

 

“Want to go for a ride?” Lukas asked.

 

-

 

“This is a great view,” Philip said as they sat, miles from Tivoli, hours away from his mom and light years away from his memories. He had nothing to recall, nothing to compare this to. He’d never taken a scenic route on a highway before, the city didn’t have the sort of views that the middle of nowhere did. He liked it, it was peaceful.

 

“It’s alright,” Lukas said with a sigh, carding his fingers through his hair. “Sometimes it’s good to just ride until you find a place to stop.”

 

Philip nodded his head in agreement. They sat in companionable silence, not really needing to talk to fill any void. The sun was setting, and Philip took a picture.

 

“That’s a good picture,” Lukas said, leaning in close to see the shot.

 

“Thanks,” Philip said, paying attention to the feel of Lukas against him.

 

“You ever film anything?” Lukas asked him.

 

“Yeah,” Philip said, looking from Lukas’ eyes to his lips, then back again. He noticed Lukas do the same, and Philip began to hope.

 

-

 

“You like playing with my hair, don’t you?” His mom asked as Philip sat behind her, braiding it.

 

“Yeah,” Philip said with a laugh, uninhibited. “I like how it looks,” he said as he put his chin on her shoulder. She pulled his arms around him and they sat there for awhile. They were interrupted by a knock at the door. His mother got up quickly, leaving him alone on the carpet, her braid falling apart as she went. A man walked in, giving Philip a look as he did so. He looked familiar. Philip had enough sense to look away from him, his jaw clenching as he thought about all of the faceless men and their cars.

 

He got up to go, grabbing his jacket. He didn’t want to be around, didn’t want to see the needle come out. It was easier to pretend that way. He also pretended not to see the man’s gaze rake over his body as he put on his shoes, kissing his mom on the cheek before going.

 

The car had been a tan Sedan. He looked different in the light of day as opposed to the darkness that surrounded dimly lit street lamps. Looking back at his door, Philip thought about telling him to get out of their house, but he knew it would only upset his mom. If it weren’t for her, he’d kick the guy out. To Philip right then, all he wanted was to go back to a few minutes prior when he’d had his mother with him, his real mother. Not the mother that would be there when he came back in an hour or so. That wasn’t her. One day he would have his mother back, for good. Until then, he had to work harder so that she could get better.

 

He headed towards the street corner.