September Salt

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Teeth, Tigers, and Other Such Things

Chapter Nine: Teeth, Tigers, and Other Such Things

JOEY

The walk to my house was tediously painful and by the time we arrived there wasn’t a part of my body that did not ache. Freddie must have felt worse, carrying the heavy rucksack that he had been.

No music or shouting could be heard as we struggled up my drive, which I took as a good sign, but that didn’t lessen the dread I felt. The door was also open when I tried it. That was good too, considering I’d forgotten my damn key. What was a little more surprising, however, was Ryan seated two metres from the front door, legs spread out before him and head resting against the wall with weary eyes closed. He hadn’t been sleeping very deeply, however, because the sound of our entrance roused him, and after a few confused blinks up at me, which I returned, he stumbled to his feet and collected me in a tight hug.

He kept spewing apologies that I didn’t quite trust the taste of.

“Where is everyone?” I asked. “What happened?”

“I asked them to leave,” Ryan told me, pulling away. “I’m so fucking sorry, about everything—Joe,” then he stopped. His eyes fell on the figure behind me. I turned to face Freddie.

“Shit. Come up, you can probably sleep in my room.” I lead Freddie up with Ryan watching us in soundless incredulity. He dropped his bag by my bed, and then I showed him the bathroom, provided a towel, extra blankets and a hot water bottle. Showed him where to put his wet clothes. Nothing was better than a hot shower just then, but he seemed grateful despite it all. So I collected some warm clothes for myself to change into and told him he could wear any of my shit, stood awkwardly for another minute, and then exited with a murmured “Goodnight”.

Ryan was still stood downstairs by the door when I made my way down, stripping my soaked hoodie off as I went.

“What...?”

“It’s complicated,” I ground out. My shoes were next to be removed, kicked off with a little difficulty, and then I settled on the bottom step to drag my socks off my sore feet. “He was at the beach. We—He was there when I got there.”

“Fuck, that’s where you went?” I didn’t reply. “Joey...”

“What are you doing here?” I asked him quietly. “I can’t believe... I can’t understand why you’d say—”

Ryan dropped down to my level. “I know! I know and I’m sorry, I told them all it was a joke, okay? I said-”

“But how the fuck did you even think that shit up? And my mum?”

“I didn’t—Fuck, I mean, I can’t believe I said that,” he admitted, “And I’ll... I’ll apologise to her if I have to, but, man you—I just need you to forgive me.” Ryan took the opportunity to take a seat next to me on the step. “I cleared up a little...” And when I looked up and around, I realised that he had indeed.

“Thanks.” I was shivering still as I removed the top I’d been wearing underneath my hoodie and hung it haphazardly on the railing of the staircase. Ryan handed me the towel I’d brought down and I covered my exposed body. “Thank you. What- what was the deal with Courtney and Kelsey? Are they, like, into each other?”

Ryan shook his head, “No. I think they just did it.”

“Just did it? What the fuck? Aren’t you—don’t you care?” Ryan looked at me, eyebrows furrowed. I hugged the towel tighter around me as I stared defiantly at him. “You don’t?”

“No. I asked her in the first place if she’d be into something like that.”

“Why? With Courtney?!”

“Because lesbians are hot,” he replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. I guessed, for him, it was. “But not with Courtney, obviously. Whatever. Are you really upset about it?” I stared at him blankly. “It’s not cheating if it’s with a girl, is it?”

“So if I made out with you I’m not cheating on her because you’re a guy?”

His face twisted. “Why would we?”

“That isn’t the point, Ryan.” He still choked on his reply. “We jerked off together, isn’t that the same thing?”

“No!” he protested, a little too much, as the lady doth. “It’s not the same at all,” then muttered on his breath; “And it’s your fucking fault for getting so damn close, shit.”

“Right.” My eyes rolled of their own accord. “Whatever. I’m cold, wet and tired. I’m going to bed. Guessing that you’re staying over?”

“If you don’t mind.”

“Yeah, well you’re going to have to sleep on the sofa or some shit. The spare bed is ready for some kid coming on Sunday, Freddie’s in my room and I’m going to my mum’s. What time is she coming back from yours?”

“Wasn’t it in the afternoon? I think she’s going food shopping with mine in the morning.”

“Okay, that’s good. I’ll have enough time to clean this place up.”

“I’ll help you.”

I sighed. “Yeah, thank you.” And then I could have sworn I heard the floorboards creak upstairs, by my room, and my bedroom door open. I then remembered falling asleep on Freddie’s shoulder. Could feel his fingers encasing mine and hear the crashing of waves and smell the bitterness of the beer staining his clothing, his breath. “Fuck,” I said. And Ryan apologised again, but I only shook my head as I stood, then left him sitting where he was.

What the hell had happened there?

When I woke, it was to the muffled sound of a vacuum cleaner. I sat up slowly to assess the damage in terms of the brewing hangover, but it wasn’t bad at all. It took close to no time to step off the bed and out of my Mum’s room. Freddie had obviously been woken by the noise just as I had, because his head was stuck out of my bedroom door, and his bagged eyes were staring in the direction of Ryan, downstairs, obliviously sucking up dust-bunnies. And then they swivelled up to me.

“Morning,” I said.

“Good morning.” Freddie offered me a smile, and I felt my lips tilt up at the corners in reply. He stepped out a little and my eyes widened.

“My-” my tiger onesie. He’d-

“Wore this,” he offered apologetically, looking downwards at the hooded outfit. “Do you mind? Nothing else fit, and it was really warm....”

It fitted him pretty perfectly, which made sense considering that it had always been too large for me. But that’s how I liked it. And did I mind? I wasn’t sure; ridiculous though it may have been, it was probably my favourite item of clothing, and I spent more weekends than I probably should have just lazing around in it, watching TV and eating endless amounts of junk food. It was an odd comfort in itself.

Freddie blinked up at me.

“No,” I said. “It’s cool.”

“Cool,” he replied, then, “Oh! Hold on.” And then he disappeared back into my room and, when he returned, was holding up his missing bookmark. “Thanks for the safe keeping. You said you didn’t read it..?” His words trailed off.

“I did.” The vacuum Ryan had been dragging around downstairs was abruptly turned off. Freddie looked at me alarmed. “I did say I didn’t read it. Because I didn’t,” I corrected.

“If you’re awake, a bit of help would be nice, you know,” Ryan shouted up at us.


The rest of the morning was productive as fuck, and it was really nice in a really odd sort of way.

Freddie and I met Ryan downstairs, who was completing his task with a piece of bacon in his mouth, which got Freddie’s stomach grumbling. We all had a breakfast of toast, bacon and eggs. Then Ryan carried on vacuuming, Freddie cleaned alcohol stains he found around, and I started checking for things missing or misplaced. Before Freddie and I had arrived, Ryan had already started returning objects to where they should have been and binning empty bottles and others of that ilk, so there wasn’t all that much to do, and with three pairs of hands we got through it fairly quickly.

Ryan already had a toothbrush over at mine, but Freddie didn’t and he didn’t seem all that up for going back home, so I rooted around the bathroom for a new one, and we all brushed our teeth, then we found ourselves congregating in the main room. Ryan wanted to play the PS3, so we did. I was shit at COD as always, but Freddie was surprisingly good, and he had Ryan swearing like mad as they played.

It was nice.

Really nice.

FREDDIE

“Fuck!” Ryan shouted, madly pressing buttons, and I knew exactly how he felt when I turned to face Joey as he was laughing aloud. There was no better word in the English language to express the emotion or, in fact, the situation than that multi-purpose expletive.

His teeth were visible, the way he was laughing, and were straight, and white. I found myself wondering if he’d worn braces, or they were just naturally like that. Decided it was more likely the former because, honestly, how could a set of teeth be so perfectly aligned? Orion’s belt kinda thing. And—the thought made me chuckle a little—what would he have looked like with them in? Bottom row and top. Had they been purple? Blue? Clear, maybe.

“Freddie, you’re going to die-” his elbow dug sharply into my side, though I didn’t think he’d meant to do it as hard as he had because he then pulled away quickly and looked as if he’d apologise for a second before his attention was returned back to the TV. “Are you even—”

And fuck came to mind again. What the hell was I doing getting lost in thoughts of Joey and his bloody teeth? In Joey and anything?

Damn yesterday. It had probably been the rain.

The small storm at the beach had brought with it a Joey I had never known or imagined could exist beneath the baggy hoodie and jeans. As though the water had washed away all signs of the abrasive personality I’d known thus far, and all that was left was soft and vulnerable, drunken and lost, and insecure. It pulled on the part of me that rooted for the underdog a little too hard, and I found myself falling fast. Into what I didn’t know, but my eyes were following the path of his hands as they ran along his scalp and through the field of almost white-blonde hair that grew there. Spotting signs of bruises I’d inflicted that still had not healed—his left eye in particular. I had an urge to apologise, but he was focused on the game, like I should have been.

The remote control in my hands vibrated erratically, telling me I was in danger of dying. My health was almost out, and it was the same for my common sense apparently. Joey had shuffled a little, briefly bumping his arm to mine –just the fact that I’d been so damn aware of it irked me.

Joey fucking Hartman. Of all the straight population to develop a ridiculous crush on.

I finally paused the game, grinning a little as both Joey and Ryan whipped their heads to face me so fast that I was genuinely surprised neither of them seemed to suffer whiplash.

“Hey!” The latter looked as cheated as he no doubt felt, evidently stumped at the nerve of my pausing his game before he was done. “What are you doing?”

“Going to get a drink. Do any of you guys want one?”

He relaxed. “There’s beer left, right?” Joey nodded in the affirmative.

“I have some too, in my bag, if not,” I offered, to which Ryan smiled gratefully at me. It was beyond odd, communicating with Ryan as I was. At school we literally did not give each other the time of day, and ‘Jokey prick’ were the only words I knew to associate him with. He seemed like a pretty relaxed guy though. Not purposely spiteful, but he wasn’t going to win any awards for his kindness either.

“I think I’ll just have some water,” Joey told me.

Ryan sent an unimpressed glare at Joey. “Are you kidding?”

Joey glanced from Ryan to me and then back at his friend. “Fine. Cider. Whatever.”

“Oh,” I glanced at the chunky silver watch on my left wrist. “Wait, it’s twelve in the afternoon,” I said slowly. The two blinked at me. “Are you serious right now?” I laughed. “Alcoholic much.” Still no reaction. I stood and dropped the console controller in Joey’s lap. “I’m getting us all juice, okay?”

Joey let out an easy smile whilst Ryan muttered something about being outnumbered and bullshit.

In the kitchen I stood and I felt entirely lost. What was I doing, and why? Why was I lingering at Joey’s when Lou had already texted me asking where I was? I should have been home. Granted there wasn’t much I could do beyond sit and suffocate underneath the pressure building there.

I tread over to the fridge and opened it, picking up the first carton of juice I saw, then searched around for three cups.

Having poured the drinks, I stood motionless for a second and the realisation that I did not want to go home once again hit, but harder this time. The thought dawned that, being at the house of a homophobe and friend, I was not opposed to. Not only that, evidently, I was not opposed of.

I’d always been pretty sensitive to people’s opinions of me, how they regarded me; if I felt I wasn’t wanted in a certain environment I could tell, as if there was a siren announcing it. A desire to get out –away– would always be triggered by the alarm. I couldn’t feel comfortable until I was either in the company of friends (like Lou, Tom, Sherry), or I had gotten out. Become free of the judgement or contempt weighing on the atmosphere.

But as I was... I felt completely fine. Neither of them seemed to give a shit. At the time, anyway. Who knew? Maybe all the work we’d done had exhausted the aggression; allowed it to simmer as a mellow tolerance for the time being. Maybe shooting people down was doing the trick too, because Ryan’s’ expression when he had seen me the night before had definitely been one of surprise, and it hadn’t been the good kind.

The day before...

Joey.

He had been so unexpected in his words, actions, emotions. The beach had been unbelievable in itself, but that he hated himself I couldn’t seem to believe. I had never associated that softly smiling, sometimes glaring, expletive expressing face of his with lack of self-esteem. Yet, there it was. He had said it. And, fuck, his eyes had been too genuine for me to even have begun to consider foul play on his part. What reason would he have to lie anyway?

Maybe this was just our generation. Finding fault in everything, ourselves most of all.

Not only that, though, but Joey had also been surprisingly friendly—hospitable—in offering his own bed, a towel. I hadn’t needed to ask. And then he’d been so apologetic because of his broken shower, cursed himself quietly, as if I couldn’t hear, because I wouldn’t need the previously provided towel, but I could “wash your face instead, or something”.

A little sorry to say that I eavesdropped too, when Joey and Ryan were speaking. He’d already told me about his girlfriend cheating on him when they were at the beach, his head on my shoulder and his drunkenness pushing words he likely otherwise would not have shared off the tip of his tongue. It was the way he’d said it though.... The anguished confusion with which he questioned his relationship with her, why they still were, when it had become a chore for him—but that lead to his still self-inflicted hatred concerning his own supposed cowardice. The things he said about Pete didn’t always make sense, but from what I understood, his views on him weren’t too far from mine.

I lost him a little when he started talking about Disney movies, but that had been part of the reason I’d hesitantly reached for his hand at first. It had felt like he was slowly slipping away, and I’d wanted to hold onto everything that that night had been. Hadn’t wanted to lose the calm that had settled between us. And, maybe holding his hand had been exactly the wrong thing to do, but Joey hadn’t complained. If anything, he settled into it. It seemed to comfort him.

I didn’t give myself any credit, nor did I entertain any ideas, however; he was a little drunk. Freezing, tired, and in shock too, probably. A male hand holding his own would hardly register, and it wouldn’t be his biggest problem by half even if it did.

Jeez, but, even if he had remained unaffected, I almost regretted it purely for the fact that it allowed me to fake up some feelings that most definitely shouldn’t have been there. They weren’t serious, but fuck—I had definitely wanted to kiss the short blonde when we were all brushing our teeth and Ryan made him laugh with some feeble joke that I had barely understood. He was cute when carefree. He was cute when falling asleep on my shoulder. His speaking about finding his girlfriend making out with another girl seemed laughable when compared to my situation, but even still, something protective had kicked in, and—

“Fuck sake!” I heard Ryan shout. “What the hell are you doing in there? Joey’s too shit to play this with.”

“Shit, he might not know where anything is,” Joey replied, and then I heard him coming over. I grabbed two of the cups as he came through the door.

“Oh, yeah, sorry. I couldn’t find the cups,” I lied. Joey smiled at me, digging one hand into his pocket and running the other through his hair.

“It’s cool. Shall I help with the last one?”

“Have it. It’s yours. Got all of us the same.” He wrinkled his nose [bloody cute].

“Ryan doesn’t get along with non-alcoholic drinks at the best of times.”

“So we’ll spike it with whiskey. Or tell him we have.”

“Hardly spiking it if you’re telling him, is it?”

I laughed, “That’s true. Shall we?” He nodded and took his cup, then lead the way back into the main room where Ryan was now playing FIFA on his own. I handed him his juice along with the whiskey anecdote, but he’d barely even sipped it before asking us if we though he was stupid.

I decided not to answer, and Joey and I laughed instead, sharing a glance.

There was that F word again.

Fuck.

JOEY

“I’m going for a piss.” Freddie and I watched Ryan scratch himself as he paused the game. He offered the remote. “Want to take over while I’m gone?” Neither of us could be bothered, so he let the controller fall to the sofa and he sauntered out of the room casually. We were both still, the only sound being a clock behind us and the game’s soundtrack.

“So, you were saying about Spanish...” he began. “You’re getting thrown off the course?”

“If I haven’t caught up by the time we return from the half term holiday, yeah.”

“Oh. What are you going to do?”

“Catch up,” I replied, and he laughed. I glanced at him and smiled a little. He was plaiting thick sections of his hair into messy braids. “I shouldn’t?”

“Not that, just can’t see you pulling yourself away from your window long enough to do so.”

“My window?” I wondered, before realising. Grinned then. “Don’t have to. I’ll catch up after class. As long as I do that, my attention during lessons is unnecessary.”

Freddie found that even funnier. “Well, whenever you need help with that, I suppose I could lend a hand.”

“It’s not a hand I’ll need, it’s a tongue.” I had done it again. Freddie was laughing so much at this point that he began to cry, and my cheeks burned from the embarrassment. Ryan chose then to return, too, and after one look at Freddie sent me a glance in question. I replied that mine was useless at the language, but he didn’t understand. I wasn’t going to elaborate, though, and Freddie was in no state to.

Freddie ran fingers through his hair to unravel the plaits he’d made as he asked me about my bruises. Asked me if they still hurt, and if I really wasn’t angry about them. They didn’t still hurt, and I really wasn’t angry, but I hated the way they looked. They’d all begun to fade - some slower than others - and would have been doing so perfectly fine if the green /yellow colour they turned during the process didn’t make my skin look like it was moulding into that of the undead. But it was no big deal.

“No need to try being hard, Joe. You can tell the nice gay boy that it hurts,” Ryan chimed in, still pushing buttons. I cringed at the mention of Freddie’s sexuality, but he himself only laughed, biting his lip in an effort not to do so too much it seemed, and relaxed back into the seat, watching the screen.

“I should probably go,” he said then.

When he’d returned downstairs after going up to retrieve his backpack, I lead Freddie awkwardly to my front door. I was trying to think up an appropriate goodbye I could offer, but there was no need in the end. When I opened the door, my mother was standing beside a large man in dirty overalls, one hand raised to push the key into the lock. Both of them were holding shopping bags that I was guessing were hers.

Turns out the guy was Priya’s uncle, who mum introduced as Naresh. Her dad, having heard about our shower issue, had asked his brother, a plumber, to help us out. I could not be more thankful; I was really missing hot showers whenever I needed them as opposed to whenever I could be bothered to march all the way to Ryan’s. Giving myself a scrub via the sink was getting a little old.

He greeted us jovially before disappearing upstairs to assess the damage.

Mum took to Freddie immediately without seeming to realise he had been the one to paint my face in bruises, but that was fine. They got on so well, in fact, that she offered to drop him at home, so long as he helped us put away the shopping. He had no problem with that and once my mum had yelled playfully at Ryan to get off the console and join in, we were all in the kitchen once again. The radio got turned on, and mum, Ryan and I were joking around constantly whilst Freddie looked on. He seemed a little lost amidst it all, but I caught him smiling - laughing - sometimes. It was odd to suddenly become so aware of the way I interacted with my mother and best friend. Seeing it through a stranger’s eyes, it was bizarre, maybe, but exciting at the same time. I’d never felt proud of my home life like that before.

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